Past Treasure of the Month – March 2011
The Rosenberg Library Museum was excited to share General Sam Houston’s ivory walking stick as the March Treasure of the Month. This cane, which dates to approximately 1840, originally belonged to General Houston (1793 – 1863) and was then gifted to his nephew, Galvestonian Major M. H. Royston. The elaborately carved cane, crafted from a single tusk of elephant ivory, was donated to the Library in 1954 by the estate of Major Royston’s daughter, Miss Maude Royston.
Walking sticks, canes, staffs, or sticks have been in use since man first needed assistance climbing over rocks or walking long distances. The walking stick’s heyday was during the Victorian period of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, but these staffs have been treasured practical and decorative items for several centuries. King Tutankhamen, Henry III, Napoleon, Louis XIII, President George Washington, and Queen Victoria all had impressive cane collections. Symbols of the staff are seen on ancient Greek amphorae and Egyptian wall paintings; they are associated with priests, bishops, kings, and shepherds. Canes are referenced in the Old and New Testament, and staffs known as “bourdons” were used by pilgrims and Crusaders who travelled to the Holy Land during the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries.
Walking sticks could be crafted from simple materials or by elaborate methods, using elephant or walrus ivory, porcelain, whale bone, rhino horn, exotic woods, serpent skin, tortoise shell, cloisonné, gems, glass, and precious metals. The walking stick falls into four different categories of use and design, including ethnic design, folk art, decorative, and gadget canes.
Ethnic canes reflect cultural customs from around the world, and canes from Africa, Asia, and Native American tribes are widely praised. Scrimshaw canes, or canes carved by sailors on the whaling ships of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are made from whale bone and teeth and are the most popular folk art canes. It was said during the seventeenth century that an aristocrat could easily spend 40,000 francs a year in decorative canes, and jewelers and smiths across Europe were kept busy with orders. Gadget canes are canes that serve dual purposes or hide treasures or weapons. These canes could include binoculars, seats, music stands, hammers, swords, razors, spikes, guns, maps, spears, flasks, fans, or cosmetics and mirrors.
Walking sticks became symbols of authority and status over time. By the sixteenth century, these staffs were part of everyday fashion and were meant to be “worn,” not merely just used. The type of walking stick and its materials indicated rank and status, and it was held that gentlemen carrying a cane could not be expected to perform manual labor. By the Victorian era, canes were in such demand that whole plantations were established to grow the reeds. The cane-manufacturing hubs of Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin, and London employed thousands.
The walking stick’s popularity waned in the early twentieth century due to improved abilities to mass produce the canes, making them less attractive as fashionable items. The unique and elaborate canes of the past are now major collectibles, and antique fairs and shops cater to those looking for particularly striking walking sticks.
General Houston’s ivory cane was featured for the month of March as a tribute to the 175th Anniversary of Texas Independence, celebrated on March 2nd. Coincidently, March 2nd is also Sam Houston’s birthday. General Houston was the first and third president of the Republic of Texas and a U.S. Senator for the state before the Civil War. Texas’ War for Independence from Mexico lasted from October 2, 1835 to April 21, 1836. Houston is most revered for his defeat of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21st, for which he was then referred to as “Old Sam Jacinto.” The Republic of Texas was declared with the adoption of the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836.