One Collector's Rabid Obsession
“Sharing a passion is what it is all about; it is both joyful and rewarding. It can be as simple as finding something new that is thrilling and exciting, introducing something unimagined, overlooked, or misunderstood.” — Dominic Strickland, 2021
People collect all sorts of things.
And as I mentioned in the essay for paid subscribers this week, the best collectors are also curators. What do curators do? They sort and group, give context, and tell stories.
Take Anthony Moss, for example. He’s a rabologist.
Oh, you don’t know what a rabologist is? Well, neither did I before I came across his book.
Rabologists collect canes and walking sticks, and as Joint Chairman of the Antique Walking Cane Society (London) and a member of the International Society of Cane Collectors (USA), Moss is an authority on the subject.
His expertise comes from his decades of collecting, which has resulted in a collection of some 2,500 walking sticks and canes.
And he has published a beautiful book on the topic, A Visual History of Walking Sticks and Canes, with nearly 900 color photos throughout 568 pages.
A Timeless Accessory
We tend to think of canes as mobility aids, but the reality is walking canes and walking sticks are fashion accessories.
Particularly popular from the 17th to 19th centuries, they were as unique and varied as any other men’s fashion accessory. And for a collector like Anthony Moss, that has meant a treasure trove of items.
Every one of the canes and sticks in his collection has a story or can be the subject of a conversation. So we asked him some questions about his collection.
Why do you collect walking canes and sticks?
My wife and I have collected a wide variety of antiques and collectibles throughout our marriage and in 1998, my wife made the mistake of buying me a few walking canes, and I soon became fascinated by the wide variety of collectible walking sticks.
Initially, the motivation was to collect a representative example of every kind of cane and walking stick made. While we wanted quality and were selected, we decided to create a broad-based collection. This entailed buying canes from different eras and of different genres.
Although our collection is continuously growing, we settled on an assortment from the mid-17th century right up to the present day. This made for an incredible collection. The thing about canes is they are fun to collect.
Is the walking cane still relevant today?
Yes, very much so. The walking cane is still a fashion item and models on fashion shoots can still be seen wearing walking canes. Some of the modern cane retailers and manufacturers still make walking canes as beautiful, wearable, and stunning as canes from the past. They are equally collectible.
Your collection is extensive, with dozens of categories. Can you simplify it for us?
Yes, fundamentally, canes break down into three main categories — decorative, folk, and gadget or dual purpose.
Decorative, Dress, and Fashion Canes: Decorative canes often denoted high status, fashioned in Art Nouveau or later Art Deco style. They might be jeweled, made of porcelain or solid gold or silver. The best, however, were made of ivory, tortoiseshell, or rhino horn, because of their comparative rarity and exotic nature. Most decorative canes existing today date from between the mid-19th and early 20th century, when they were sold as fashion accessories or designed as fashion items, based on the imagination of highly skilled artists and artisans.
Folk Art, or Art Popular Canes: Folk art canes are handmade and generally carved from one single piece of wood, cane, or branch. These folk art canes were one-offs by untrained artists. Many display magical or mystical symbols along the shaft, or feature patterns recounting an event of historical significance.
System and Gadget Canes: System and gadget canes can be defined as canes with more than one purpose, featuring a hidden or secondary function. They were available in many varieties, worn by surgeons, tailors, soldiers, sailors, artists, and decorators, all concealing hidden tools. For example, a gardener’s cane might contain a pair of shears to remove tops from flowers or hide a saw for removing unwanted branches. Other canes housed musical instruments. Others concealed snuff, contained maps, compasses, watches, and more. They were a bit like the Swiss Army knife of today.
What are your favorite canes?
There are many beautiful canes in the A&D Antique Walking Cane Collection. My favorite cane is a German narrative cane, circa 1890, with a carved ivory handle depicting a mermaid and a girl on a beach (seen on p. 4 of the book)
The most amazing gadget walking cane, dated 1850, is the escritoire set (p. 129). It contains a watch and a mirror in the handle, a set of ink wells, a pen and pencil, watch key, penknife, candle, etc. This is of particular interest to me because I also collect antique writing instruments.
Maybe also the ultimate tradesman’s cane, a silver handle mohel’s walking cane, dated 1853. The rabbi’s kippah unscrews to reveal its contents: a silver circumcision bowl, circumcision knife and a brit milah shield (p. 36).
While I’m not a rabologist, I can appreciate the collection Mr. Moss has assembled. Because he is able to arrange and categorize his vast holdings, it becomes more meaningful for a novice like me.
He takes us on a stunning visual journey and tells stories along the way (as a good collector should), to help further ground us in the knowledge that comes as second nature to him.
And along the way, his excitement and passion for the topic come through, making it all the more fascinating for us.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.