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Wednesday, June 11, 2008


So this blog is all about discovery for me. Yes I use it to display the events that I go to with the First NH (which I do have last weekend's event coming soon ... I promise). But the main reason I started it was to record the stuff I learned about the late 18th century, since I knew very little when I started. I prefer to get my information by looking at pictures of the time, but of course information can be found anywhere and everywhere. Even from kindly folks who read my humble little blog and decide to take pity on me and share the information that they possess. I was lucky enough to have this very thing happen to me today. The gentleman that sparked yesterday's blog post emailed me to give me more information on one of the things I was pondering. Here is the information he provided to me:

I meant to comment on the note on your blog/website that said: "I love that he has a cane of some sort tucked under his arm. I wonder if it was commonplace to carry one whether you needed it or not. I imagine that even if it were, it wouldn’t have been for those that were not higher up on the social scale."

Below is a snippet from my page on French fashions of the 18th century. The general rule when it came to fashion for most of the century was that the English would copy the French (even though they were usually at war) and the colonists (those who could afford to) would copy the fashions of the mother country. That's why I included all three countries on my clothing pages. While there was a "trickle-down" effect to "the lower sort," the working class tended to more utilitarian clothing than ornamentation.

Curiously, the gold-headed cane became a symbol of physicians in England and America, although I've never learned why.

Today, the proper English gentleman will sport a "brolly" (umbrella) and the upper-class chaps know that theirs must have a handle of bamboo, so the fashion is still with us in a sense.


The toilette of ladies who followed the fashions was completed by many accessory objects which were held to be indispensable to the dress of a lady of good condition or of bon ton; as for instance, trinkets, watches, caskets, fans, and even canes. Men had always carried canes, which were made of bamboo, ebony wood, &c., with the head made of metal or some other substance. The long gold-headed cane, once called cane à la Tronchin and afterwards à la Voltaire, was chiefly used by elderly men, magistrates and dignified personages. above: examples of cane heads.

The pliant canes, varying in length, were only suitable for young men in easy morning dress (en chenille). The younger ladies eventually took to using the long gold-headed cane, which they held in the middle, like the suisse at the door of a nobleman's residence. This led to the introduction of very costly canes made of scented wood, tortoise shell and ivory. The fans, which were at first used for fanning, eventually became more ornamental than useful, and the commonest were made of scented wood, while the most expensive were of tortoise shell and ivory, incrusted with ivory and precious stones, and painted by artists of great talent.

And here is a picture he sent along as well:

So maybe I should be picking up a cane for myself? That sounds like a lot of fun!!

Isn't fun to discover something new? Okay I may very well be the only one who didn't already know this information, but I found very interesting to learn!

Believe me yours faithfully,


Rick R. said...


The reason that a cane became became a mark of a physician is simple.


Not only are the smells associated with untreated (by 21st Century standards) disease quite repulsive, but it was believed that disease was passed along via miasmas (bad smells -- in fact, malaria means "bad air").

The cane has a perforated hollow head which is filled with strong smelling herbs and such -- think potpouri on steroids. The idea was that, by overwhelming the bad odors, not only did one avoid the revolting smells, but one protected himself from the disease vector. Both silver and gold were used extensively by physicians.

Note that in engravings and such where the artist is trying to identify a character as a physician, he will invariably be holding his cane head to his nose.

Women of stature or who anticipated working in an area where strong foul odors would be encountered would often do the same thing, except using a locket (or, if poorer, a small linen wrapped packet) on a ribbon instead of a cane. Unfortunately, I cannot go into detail on women's fashions, as my knowledge of them is limited to what I have picked up by osmosis.

Rick Randall
Surgeon and Dentist
British Detatched Hospital

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