“The walking-stick serves the purpose of an advertisement that the bearer’s hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utility as an evidence of leisure. But it is also a weapon, and it meets a felt need of barbarian man on that ground. The handling of so tangible and primitive a means of offense is very comforting to anyone who is gifted with even a moderate share of ferocity.”
Friday, 7 June 2013
Part XLII - Walking Sticks
This is a series about Theory of the Leisure Class, a book by American Economist Thorstein Veblen. This post ends the discussion of Chapter 10, Modern Survivals of Prowess. Only four more chapters to go!
By this point you’ll think Veblen has some sort of malicious obsession with the leisure class and you might be right. I think it’s more likely that he wants to make his point, sell his book, build his career, to still be quoted over 80 years after his death. One of the small asides he makes in this chapter is about the walking stick. I’m not certain why this grabbed me, unless it was because of the other book I was reading at the time, Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, published between 1855 and 1856. I’m fairly certain that English gentlemen will have carried walking sticks in this time and perhaps there was a reference I didn’t note at the time.
In any case, Veblen makes the point that walking-sticks are generally recognised as being carried by ‘...the men of the leisure class proper, sporting men, and the lower-class delinquents…[also] men engaged in the pecuniary employments’. I’m sure Mr Banks in Mary Poppins carried such a thing (or perhaps it was an umbrella).
If you could ask Senator Charles Sumner about his experience with Representative Preston Brooks in 1856 following a speech Sumner gave about admitting Kansas to the union as a free state, I'm sure he would confirm Veblen's views about walking sticks as weapons.
At some point walking sticks were no longer de rigueur but umbrellas were more useful. Women carried parasols for a while as well. However, Veblen is certain that neither your usual men engaged in industry nor most women would carry walking sticks, unless in the case of infirmity which is a different matter. A while back Bill shared a Youtube video in which an old woman used her walking cane to beat a young man attempting a 'happy slap'. I'm sure the video is a fake, but there are some tough old women up here in the North of England, no question about that. I wouldn't mess with anyone carrying a stick! Would you?