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Walking Stick

Purkins, Thomas
Place Made:
Stafford County Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
deer antler, silver, holly (?)
LOA: 39-1/4″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Cane or walking stick carved with variety of animals and faces and inscribed in ink with drawings of plants (rice, indigo, nutmeg, and a rose), a butterfly and hummingbird, and two poems. The carved elements include (from top to bottom) a dog, fox, lion, cat, bird (or griffin), cow, three human faces (possibly African American), peacocok, rooster, boar, deer, horse, donkey, lizard, and two rabbits. The handle is a deer antler carved with a bearded face.

INSCRIPTION: Written in ink along the cane is a poem that reads: “See Israel’s gentle shepherd stand / With all en____ames / Hark how he calls ____ lands / And folds them in his ____ / Permit them to approach he cries / Nor scorn their humble names / For ____ / The love of glory ____ / Ye tithe [?] flock with pleasure hear / Ye children seek his face; / And fly with transport to receive / The blessings of his grace.” A second poem, also written in ink, reads: “Watch and pray / My soul be on thy guard / ____ thousand foes arise / And hosts of sins are pressing hard / It draweth from the skies. / I watch and fight and pray / The battle ne’er give o’er; / R____ it bold by every day; / And help divine implore / Never think the victory won / Nor once at ease sit down / Thy arduous work will not be/ done / Till thou’ has got the crown.”

MAKER: Thomas Purkins (1791-1855) was born on April 23, 1791 and married Frances “Fannie” Pierce Edwards (1804-1857) of Ellerslie Plantation in King George County, Virginia. The couple had nine children and lived at Hollywood, a plantation near Muddy Creek in Stafford Co., Virginia. Purkins died June 16, 1855. Portraits of Purkins and his wife have descended in the family. According to family history, Purkins was an enormous man (350-400 pounds) who sent slaves to Wakefield, the birthplace of George Washington, to collect wood from holly trees. His walking sticks and canes were carved with a pen knife, a piece of glass, and sandpaper. See gravestone for Col. Thomas Purkins, Hollywood Cemetery, Falmouth, Stafford Co., VA (available online: [accessed 9 August 2017]).

FORM: Among the many forms of vernacular folk art, carved canes and walking sticks can be appreciated for both their beauty and their usefulness. In the nineteenth century a cane or walking stick was a fashion accessory and much was written about the proper and graceful use of the cane or umbrella while walking in public. The history of the cane and the staff goes back to biblical times, and over the years canes have been used as religious and magical symbols, and as signs of authority or power. Carvers of folk art examples brought whimsy and thoughtfulness to their work, often producing detailed carvings; incised drawings; messages commemorating events, places, and people; and figures or animals forming the handles, or climbing, encircling, or entwining the shaft. See “Canes & Walking Sticks,” The Ames Gallery website; online: (accessed 22 June 2017).

Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund