In the world of antiques and collectibles, there are many items that are the subject of controversy. Oftentimes, it is not just the item itself but also the context of its original production, distribution, use, and inherited symbolism over the years that is deemed complicated at best or problematic at worst. Though the list of items that rise and fall in popularity due to troublesome pasts grows longer every year, one fairly innocuous example is the swagger stick.
Swagger sticks have their origins in the Roman vitis or vine-stick cane. These wooden rods, which were slightly shorter than walking canes, were carried exclusively by centurions, the officers known for a “Sternness or near savagery in their disposition towards discipline.” The vitis was used not only for leading drills but also for castigation.
In the many centuries since the Roman Empire, Western military forces adopted the modern version of the vitis: the swagger stick. The design of the stick hardly changed – only becoming more streamlined and formal so as to compliment the sophisticated military uniforms of the eighteenth century. In addition to the hardwoods, brass or bronze accents would be added in bands or end caps.
Though in general use throughout the nineteenth century, World War I sparked increased popularity of the swagger stick. American military forces, particularly the United States Marine Corps, found the British military swagger sticks to be an appealing signifier of rank. In 1922, the Marine Corps adopted the swagger stick as a regulation uniform item.
Some officials greatly admired the aesthetic and historic value of the swagger stick as a uniform and disciplinary tool. Marine Corps General Pate, who served as Commandant from 1956 to 1959, believed the swagger stick improved military appearance. However, as the tumultuous twentieth century progressed, others disagreed. Pate’s successor, General Shoup, who served as Commandant from 1960 to 1963, felt differently. He made the swagger stick an optional uniform item, stating, “if you feel the need of it, carry it.” It is believed that brutal British use of the sticks against the Chinese soured Shoup’s opinion of them. Ultimately Shoup’s statement effectively ended the popularity of the swagger stick as an official uniform and disciplinary accessory.
Although the acceptance of the swagger stick eventually diminished in formal military practice, the swagger stick has certainly found its place in the collectibles market. Different varieties of swagger sticks can perform quite well on the auction block, and there is certainly a niche of knowledgeable historians and collectors who buy and sell at different price points.
For example, vintage United States Marine Corps swagger sticks are sold fairly frequently, but arguably more interesting than these uniform items are trench art examples. Trench art, generally, is defined as items crafted from repurposed objects such as bullets, casings, fabric, wood, and bone, produced by soldiers engaged in combat during World War I (and the other wars to follow). These items were so popular in the early twenty-first century that they were produced and sold as wartime souvenirs for civilians, even in department stores. Though trench art swagger sticks are often quite crude, they can be comprised of a fascinating assemblage of wartime materials.
Swagger sticks were also manufactured for the hyper-vigilant gentlemen of the nineteenth century. Though some were simple accessories similar to the longer walking cane, others had discrete functions. Weapon sticks, with concealed knife blades or firearms, are an especially desirable iteration of the swagger stick. Though some have intricate locking mechanisms, most knife swagger sticks have a simple pull out function. The blades and their shafts were most often made in England and continental Europe, making an American example exceedingly unusual.
Though swagger sticks with hidden knife blades are a desirable collectible, gun swagger sticks are by far the most valuable. Their designs were often compatible with whatever was in vogue for standard firearms during their time of production. As gun manufacturing and aesthetics continually refined and advanced, so too did gun swagger sticks. Ultimately, though, the production and sale of these sticks came under close and worthy scrutiny. Due to their quickly hidden function, gun canes and swagger sticks were associated with assassins. When President John F. Kennedy was regretfully assassinated, gun canes and sticks were outlawed unless appropriately registered.
With a long and winding history as a symbol of authority, discipline, and violence, the swagger stick is an interesting relic of times past. Though the modern United States military no longer uses this particular tool, it continues to attract collectors in the secondary market.
Lauren Casolo is a fine art and antiques appraiser based in Atlanta, Georgia, with several years of experience in the art advisory, insurance, and auction industries.
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