Walking sticks and canes are probably one of the oldest tools and
mobility aides in the history of man. After all, walking sticks are
just....well, sticks and sticks are pretty much one of the first tools
that man learned to use. Walking sticks have been used through the ages
and have at one time or another been fashion accessories, weapons,
mobility aides and status and power symbols.
Sticks and staffs are found in every culture from Europe to the Americas to the Far East. Most of us will have an image in our mind of monks from every corner of the world walking with a staff - Friar Tuck is famous for his quarterstaff skills, and when not wielding it in battle, he is popularly shown using the staff to walk with. Similar symbols can be found throughout the world and warrior monks from the Far East also used staffs effectively both as walking aids and as weapons.
Egypt used sticks, both as status symbols and as a means of identifying a person's trade. A shepherds staff had a distinct look and would be different to the cane used by a trader or a merchant, and different still to those used by the Pharaoh. So the walking stick could easily be used to see, not only a person's relative importance in any gathering, but also, what occupation they held. Of course this classification of people by their walking sticks was as much dictated by their work as by social standing. A shepherd's staff is a good tool both in helping the shepherd keep his balance when traversing rocky and hilly landscapes, but more than that the large crook in the staff is usefull for actually herding his flock. He would have little use for a merchant's walking stick simply because the design would not be as usefull for him. In the same way, a merchant would have little use for an exagerated crook in his walking stick and so he would simply do away with that design feature in favour of something smaller.
As society developed and craftsmen became more adept at their trades, walkings sticks started to become more ornamental in their design with carvings being worked into the design, sometimes even noting historic events or stories (as is often the case with implements, tools, vases, murals and so on which were both functional and used to keep track of history). The mid fifteenth century is about the time when, in Europe at least, walking sticks became part of documented written history. Around this time the carvings and ornamentation on sticks became more elaborate and with the beginnings of a more global trade, walking sticks that came from exotic locations made of more exotic woods were termed walking canes in England during the reign of King Henry VIII. In fact carrying a stick became synonymous with power and justice - if carried in the right hand it denoted power and if in the left, justice.
Walking sticks became as much a fashion accessory as a symbol of power - so much so that in France, King Louis XIV forbade any plebs from carrying one and reserved the use of the walking stick for aristocracy alone. It was in the 18th and 19th century that walking sticks became very popular - as much a part of a gentleman's outfit as a pair of underpants, and since then, their use in everyday attire has all but died out. Part of the reason they became so popular was that around this time, the general use and carrying of the sword fell out of fashion and the cane was the obvious item to take its place. Swords were obviously used for self defense and the methods translated well into the cane. Indeed swordsticks started to be produced (a walking stick with a sword concealed withing it) and several martial arts including le canne and singlestick were developed specifically for using the cane. These are still practiced today as sport.
Another interesting thing about walking sticks is that in the 1700s in England, a law was passed that required any man who was carrying a walking stick to have a license to do so. There were also strict rules attached to the license, such as not carrying the cane under an arm or hanging it on a button.
And of course no introduction to walking sticks would be complete without mentioning possibly the most important use of the cane ever - that of the white cane for sight impaired people - originally painted white because they were more visible to passing traffic. In our modern age, nothing so truly sums up the walking stick as the independence that a white cane imparts to it's owner.
So walking sticks and canes are actually more than just a tool to help us keep our balance on hilly slopes or aide us if we are disabled - it is actually a facinating look into anthropology and social evolution, helping us chart not only changes in societal outlook and fashion, but also how form follows function.