By Cheryl Beatty, Collections Assistant
“Your grandpa’s cane, it turns into a sword” -Bob Dylan, “On the Road Again”, 1965
The costume collection at ATHM was infused with an assortment of “novelty canes” last year, bolstering our collection of men’s accessories. The 15 canes and walking sticks, along with a solitary umbrella, were donated by Dr. Robert Breault, who has held an interest in these antique items for years.
A handwritten note enclosed in the shipping box explained his collection was built by gifts from patients and friends, as well as some purchased by the donor himself, “not at the usual antique shops, but at gun shows”. What?
Carefully holding the first cane for examination, I pressed a tiny button near the handle, twisted, and pulled to reveal a hidden blade.
My first thought was that I’d need better protection than the thin cotton gloves I was wearing. The blade of the sword now exposed was sharp. Seriously sharp. Okay, the donor is a surgeon, someone used to handling specially honed instruments. The good doctor had also included a caveat in the aforementioned note saying, “Please be aware that the contents may be considered concealed weapons.” A quick web search revealed that laws pertaining to sword canes vary from state to state, and country to country. Carrying one is illegal in Arkansas and California, for instance; in Britain, selling one is illegal unless proven that it is over 100 years old.
Sword canes or “swordsticks” evolved during the 18th century, when carrying swords or daggers was going out of style and firearms were becoming the general population’s weapon of choice. Their popularity grew well into the 19th century, especially in the late Victorian era when street crime became more prevalent.
Not all of the canes are weapons, though. Not long after the sword cane became popular, other canes were made that could conceal almost any tool of a tradesman (think “Swiss Army Cane”). Of particular interest were the drinking tools. Among the donated canes is a newer one with a wide black metal shaft and wooden handle. It contains five glass tubes with watertight plastic lids, each about 5 1/2 inches long. They can be filled with any liquid and stacked on each other when the cane’s bottom tip is closed. And, yes, even the black umbrella contains a sharp dagger approximately 12 inches long, evoking memories of the 1960s spy-fi program The Avengers, in which an always-dapper John Steed was rarely seen without his umbrella/sword.
One cane in particular had me stumped. It has a curved handle and a very narrow wooden shaft. It does not open, but has a brass, spring-loaded mechanism attached at the tip. I was thinking it might shoot a projectile, but how? ATHM’s Director of Interpretation, David Unger, found the answer. It is a “cap popper” cane. One would thread a roll of shock-sensitive caps into the back of the chamber, and by tapping the cane on the ground, the caps would advance and pop at the same time. But why?
I closed the box, realizing that I might never learn the true purpose of some of these novelties.