Futurism logo

How The Cane Replaced The Sword in Everyday Carry

The Strange History of Self-Defense

When was the last time you saw someone just walking down the street, a sword at their hip? For most of us this is not something we see outside of historical reenactments, officers' balls, or particularly large conventions dedicated to comic books and roleplaying games. However, there was a time when belting on a sword was just something you did when you stepped out your door... it was as much a status symbol as it was a sign that you were not someone to be messed with.

However, as the sword and things associated with it fell out of fashion (or just became downright impractical) the sword actually gave way to an even older accessory... the walking stick.

Ever wondered why we always associate the walking stick with wealthy men-about-town in merry old England, or with the particularly stodgy parts of the upper class? Well, we're about to get into the timeline.

For more odd pieces of history, such as Secret Societies: Who Were The Assassins? or The Truth About "The Anarchist Cookbook", then simply check out my full Vocal archive!

A Companion As Old As Time

You can trust none on the road. Trust the staff that carries you.

Walking sticks have been around basically since the first human picked one up off the ground, using it to help support their weight on long journeys and defend themselves from wild animals. A stout staff has been the friend to wanderers and wizards alike, and as Classy Walking Canes points out, the staff was often used as a symbol of authority. Held by kings and priests, there are still ceremonial uses for these sticks today in organizations today (freemasonry, the Catholic Church, and others).

In a more practical sense, though, it just made sense to carry a stout stick when you went out into the dangerous world. It's something humans have done all around the world, and from the Asa used as far back as the day's of ancient Egypt in the martial art Tahtib, to the gnarled shillelagh carried throughout Ireland, there are countless examples of how we have used these sticks to protect ourselves.

While most people had a stick of one variety or another, though, the mark of a warrior of status was a sword.

Status Symbols

High carbon steel, best a man can get.

The sword is one of humanity's purest weapons, for it serves no other practical purpose. A spear can be used to fish, or hunt. An ax may be used to chop down trees. A knife can be turned to a hundred different tasks, from whittling wood to preparing food. Even a stout staff can be used as a walking aid.

A sword is meant to fight, and really nothing else.

And while the sword has been around for a large part of our history, any museum can tell you that it's rarely been the most important (or even the most common) weapon on the field. A secondary or even tertiary weapon, it was often kept as a sidearm for when the foe was too close, or worn as a symbol of rank and prestige. Swords took time, resources, and no small amount of craft to produce, after all, so having a sword was often just as much about being important or wealthy enough to have such a weapon. Even if it stayed in its scabbard for the entire battle, or if you only wore it to court, or as a symbol of your rank and privilege.

If you read back through history you'll even find that entire classes of people (many of whom could never afford one anyway) were sometimes banned from owning swords in different societies. The 1588 Sword Hunt in Japan, which cracked down on weapon ownership by peasants, is just one example.

What does that have to do with walking sticks, though?

Well, it was around the year 1550 that walking sticks became a fashion accessory in England and Europe. And as soon as these sticks stopped being an item of purely practical use (especially one used by the lower classes), whole new sets of rules started being crafted around them. Everything from how you had to walk with them, to what was considered proper etiquette when you had your stick, to how ostentatious they could be, started getting encoded into the culture.

And as Walking Sticks points out on its timeline, it was in the 1600s that the sword really began to fall away as part of what was considered a gentleman's everyday carry. It was now the walking stick that was carried as your status symbol, and they were carried by men and women alike so that passersby could tell exactly where you stood on the social ladder at a glance. Everything from your wealth, to your life experience, to what social clubs or profession you belonged to could be read at a glance in some circumstances, as we saw in the details of The Hound of The Baskervilles, when Sherlock Holmes breaks down a mystery client with nothing more than an examination of his abandoned walking stick.

This wasn't a flash-in-the-pan trend, either. It lasted until the 1940s! The walking stick was considered a necessary part of going out for centuries, and it only really fell out of favor around the time World War II was drawing to a close.

After that point in time, the walking stick was mostly yielded as the symbol of prestige and position, and it once again took up its purpose as a practical, medical instrument. The 1930s saw France popularize the white cane used by those with impaired sight, and walking sticks once more became something used by those with mobility issues rather than as a ubiquitous accessory used to make a statement.

The Walking Stick as a Subversive Weapon

No sir, this is just a cane. For my family.

While it was an accessory of fashion, there was no denying that for a lot of people a walking stick was still about self defense. Whether someone carried a stick where the head had been filled with lead (a "loaded stick" that hit like a mace), a sword stick with a hidden blade, or one of the unusual walking sticks that contained a hidden firearm (such as the Remington rifle cane), there was no denying the potential threat of such a stout companion.

Though it might seem old-fashioned in today's high-tech world, the walking stick is just as useful as a self-defense implement as it ever was (even without a hidden blade or a concealed gun). With models made of high-impact plastic or aluminum, as well as traditional hardwoods, many people carry one of these sticks precisely because there's no law against taking one wherever they go. Whether they're on the street, walking in a park, at a bar, or even going on vacation, it's just a walking stick to the casual observer.

Even if you're not a master of Bartitsu (a British mixed martial art that incorporates one's walking stick as a major offensive and defensive tool), it never hurts to have a little extra reassurance to lean on when you're out in the world.

Neal Litherland
Neal Litherland
Read next: Understanding the Collective Intelligence of Pro-opinion
Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

See all posts by Neal Litherland

Find us on socal media

Miscellaneous links