Myth: Canes Required Carry Permits

You may have never happened across this particular myth, and I just saw it for the first time myself, but a number of sites that discuss the history of the cane perpetuate a myth that around the early 18th century, licenses were required to carry canes in England.

There are variations on the theme, but the way I first heard it was in the context that a license was required to carry the cane because of its status as a weapon. This simply did not jibe with my impression of the Georgian era. In fact, I had recently seen a Victorian illustration that satirized the overabundance of the gentleman’s walking cane and the difficulty it caused when navigating afoot. H. G. Walters similarly described the danger of the ever-present but inattentive cane flourishers:

The man who has a habit of carrying his walking-stick horizontally under his arm, so that when he whisks round, which be constantly does to look behind him or stare in shop windows, it hits anybody near him, is, equally with him who swings it round and round, an enemy of the human race.

I also knew that by 1900, it was reported that any man in London above the rank of a “coster” (a fruit, fish, meat seller; anyone selling from a cart) carried a cane. Holliday, Robert C. The Walking-Stick Papers. NY: 1918. Again, this made it difficult to account the licensing idea, although these were all later occurrences.

Therefore, with skepticism in hand, I sailed into the seas of the internet tubes to discover the mythical headlands of the cane license. I was initially chagrined to find that no less a source than wikipedia mentioned the 18th century licensing requirements as well as the difficulty of procuring such as license:

It is apparently the case that a license was required to carry a cane in London during the 18th century[citation needed], possibly because of the use as a weapon, in essence a fighting stick.The process that was needed to gain this license was very long and it had been known to take a long time to finish the process; thus, most people at the time did not gain the license.

I will admit, I was taken aback upon reading that passage. However, I found it heartening that a wikipedia editor must have been, if not skeptical, at least concerned that there was no citation for the proposition. Therefore I pressed on and found that common 18th century cane licensing story repeated on a number of walking cane sites. Here’s the most detailed account I could discover, which even includes language from a supposed cane license (site name withheld to protect the foolish):

In 1702, the men of London were required to have a license in order to carry a walking stick or cane. It was considered a privilege to walk with a cane therefore they were required to have a licence. Without a license they were excluded from the privilege. One example of a cane license reads:

You are hereby required to permit the bearer of this cane to pass and repasts through the streets of London, or anyplace 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, and I hereby declare it forfeited to anyone who shall think it safe to take it from him.
– Signed________. (Source: Lester and Goerke Accessories of Dress, Peoria, IL. The Manual Arts Press.)

I assume whoever posted that never read through and finished the last sentence. However, at least now I had a source and a quote. Accessories of Dress by Lester and [O]erke (2004) is on Google books, although the relevant passage is not part of the preview. The quote was easy enough to attribute, though, and you can see it referenced in Carolyn Beckingham’s Is Fashion a Right? (2005) or a reprint of the quoted essay that followed a century after the original.

It turns out, somewhat comically, that the essay was originally published in the Tatler in December 1709 as a humorous critique of popular fashion, i.e., the 18th century fashion police were criticizing cane carriers who were too free or negligent with their canes when out in public. The license was attributed to “Isaac Bickerstaff,” who was comprised of a group of essayists, including Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who satirized fashion, among other things, under the name Isaac Bickerstaff. Apparently no less a satirist than Jonathan Swift started the Bickerstaff persona to mess with John Partridge. Steele, upon starting up the Tatler, included “Isaac Bickerstaff” on board as an editor.

Later that same December, Bickerstaff “outlawed” the new puffy petticoat fashions he thought made woman appear pregnant. It is ironic that the myth declaring that licenses were once required to carry a cane in Britain is derived from a 300 year-old version of a Mr. Blackwell fashion critique.

For a general history of the walking cane, see Man and His Walking Stick by H. G. Walters (1898).

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