Open 10am - 4pm everyday - Kiwi Feeding at 11am, 1pm & 3pm

Walking Sticks

Alison Sofield - Volunteer Collections, Whangarei Museum


Walking sticks or canes have been around as long as civilization, not only for practical purposes such as walking or hiking but also for ceremonial use, to show status or authority.

A nice hefty stick was a protection for early shepherds or travelers, to fend off robbers or animals. Over time the weaponry aspect increased so that a walking stick could conceal a small gun or a sword. It is known that contraband or messages could usefully be concealed in walking sticks. The Ancient Egyptians, especially rulers, often carried a staff that could range from one to two metres in length. These were often topped with an ornamental knob in the shape of a lotus blossom, a symbol of a long life.

These sticks came in a wide variety of materials, ivory, whalebone, ebony, wood, rattan, malacca, bamboo and other hardy reeds. Quality canes pointed to the status and wealth of the user. The walking sticks of very wealthy and important people often featured jewels and precious metals. Some sticks were heavily carved as well.

In the Middle Ages a sceptre carried in the right hand was a symbol of royal power. If held in the left hand it represented justice. Religious practices began to include a staff shaped like a shepherd’s crook which the Bishop used to draw his congregation to the Church. These crooks are often seen in churches today, the symbolism of a shepherd and his flock well understood by the congregation. A piece of trivia: Marie Antoinette was known to carry a shepherd’s crook.

The use of the word “cane” came into being about the 16th century when early explorers discovered that tropical grasses such as bamboo also made excellent walking sticks and were much lighter to carry.

After the 1600s, canes became very fashionable for gentlemen to carry as a vital accessory. Rules for the use of canes became established. To break the code of behaviour in regard to canes was considered very bad manners. In 1702, men living in London were required to have a license to carry a cane or walking stick; and we think we are over regulated in modern times. The license form makes interesting reading, I quote

“You are required to permit the bearer of this cane to pass and repass the streets of London, or any place within ten miles of it, without theft or molestation. Provided that he does not walk with it under his arm, brandish it in the air, or hang it on a button, in which case it shall be forfeited to anyone who shall think it safe to take it from him” Source: Lester and Oerke Accessories of Dress. The Manual Arts Press.

Canes continued to be in wide use as time progressed, women began using them as a fashion accessory. Sticks became popular as gifts and it is recorded that Ben Franklin gave one to President George Washington. This gift is held today by the Smithsonian Institute. It features a gold handle in the shape of a French liberty cap.

Walking sticks have had many ingenious uses, one we all recognize is the white cane used by those who are visually impaired. This type of cane emerged between the two World Wars.

Those of us old enough can remember the use of the cane in Hollywood dance scenes in films. Who can forget the magic of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?

The Whangarei Museum holds a number of interesting walking sticks, especially beautifully carved sticks of Māori origin. The stick I researched today is one made of whalebone. It looks very like ivory, but marine mammal bone was more easily procured at the time of the sealers and whalers in early New Zealand. Fortunately, both elephants and whales are largely protected today so this makes this particular stick unique. The body of the stick is carved in a pattern known as a barley spiral. There are two inlaid rings, where the body meets the knob, a ‘turks head’ knot, a very popular pattern. This stick was probably made by a seaman on a whaler ship in his down time. Whaling began in New Zealand in the late 1700s and continued until 1965.


Perhaps this stick strolled around early Whangarei. Imagining this scenario is what so intrigues me to keep on researching.