The Malacca Cane: A Gentleman’s Accessory

© Victoria and Albert Museum. No. E.96-1947

© Victoria and Albert Museum. No. E.96-1947

We might consider the cane to be the emblem par excellence of nineteenth-century respectability – what other accessory so well typifies the aristocratic gentleman, and brings to mind images of European – and especially British – propriety? Of course, however, this is not the full story. For aside from dating back far beyond modern conceptions of Victorian decorum, the cane has its place in a far greater, global, story.

 

The word cane is itself symptomatic of this, for it tells of a specific type of walking stick. To be properly called a cane, a walking stick must be made of just that: malacca. Malacca, which takes its name from the Malacca Straits, charted by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, is actually the root of the rattan plant, refers to the 600-or-so species indigenous to tropical areas of Africa and Asia, particularly, for the purposes of European consumption, in Sumatra. Perhaps more than canes, we might recognise the plant as being used in caning, a form of seating popular in Europe from the eighteenth-century.

 

Malacca canes seem to have become popular in post-Restoration seventeenth century courts, a time of (mainly Dutch) mercantile expansion and of more efficient global trade routes – and at a time when, it is often held, there was sufficiently prodigality often to subsume the utility of one’s dress in the luxuriousness of its materiality. Canes slightly problematize this: yes, the ‘perfect’ cane was a rare and wonderful object, as it had to be the right length, have with sufficient length between the nodules (malacca is jointed like bamboo), as well as have the ideal ‘tear drop’ cross section. It has been suggested that out of a shipment of 1000 canes, only 50 could be classed as ‘superb’.[1] On the other side of the coin we must note that malacca as a material is lightweight but strong – perfect for a walking stick, and with a degree of flexibility which actually makes its better suited to the task than its wooden counterparts.

 

Immediately, then, we can see that canes as walking sticks were special objects, comparable perhaps to other consumer items produced in the Far East for the European market – porcelain and lacquer spring to mind. Direct comparisons have proved challenging, as there’s little information as to the cost of such objects, barring vague assertions claiming that ‘there was almost no limit to the sums which people were then willing to spend upon them’.[2]

 

It might be important to note in this context that ‘one did not use a cane but wore it’[3] – it was much a part of one’s dress as a shoe, or a lace ruff. This again makes it similar to other oriental exports such as lacquer and porcelain as they are largely incidental to the actual process of living; they are unnecessary adjuncts to existence which have only a performative value, meaning that their worth lies in the image they create of the owner: how marvellous to own a Chinese porcelain vase, a cabinet fronted with Japanese lacquer, and to walk with a malacca cane (which were, it seems often tipped with ivory – another expensive and exotic material, imported from afar…)! The point is that these objects confer not only the cultural cachet of contact with far off places and races, but also signals one’s ability to afford such objects – arguably this second is the most important – and in an age when so many aristocrats undertook the Grand Tour through Europe that continental connections had ceased to provoke the envy of one’s peers, these oriental objects would perhaps provide the means of culturally ‘one-upping’ the Joneses, as it were.

Max Maisey-Curtis

 

[1] Francis H. Monek, Canes Through the Ages, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 104

[2] Richardson, E.P., ‘Walking Sticks of the Eighteenth Century’, Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, October 1943, Vol. 23, No. 1, p. 7

[3] Dike, C., Cane Curiosa: from gun to gadget, Paris, 1983, p. 10

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