or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 11/10/13

   November 16th, 2013

blowguncaneThis wasn't a particularly difficult question, but it was fun and interesting - and none of it took place in my library.

One Friday night, a guy I know showed me a cane passed down from his grandfather to his father, and from his father to him. His grandfather lived in Sweden, and all my friend (who is in his sixties) knew about him was that he worked on some kind of coastal cargo boat, making runs to various ports of Europe. He figured the cane could be be fairly old, and could be from anywhere in Europe.

The cane was interesting because it wasn't just old, it also concealed a hidden weapon. Now, I've seen sword canes before and have heard of gun canes, but I'd never heard of anything like this one. It was a kind of gun cane, in that the shaft screwed apart to open up a place to insert a bullet. But the really unusual thing was that the top of the handle also unscrewed, and that was designed as a blowgun.

The net result of this was that you held the cane to your mouth, blew (hard) to move a firing pin forward to strike the bullet to fire it down the barrel which was inside the length of the cane. Very novel design, and a really cool antique cane.


But holy smokes I can't believe people wouldn't knock their teeth out firing this thing.

Anyway, this is what we were able to figure out just from examining the cane. The blowgun part was unmistakable, and the firing pin mechanism was still intact and worked. We weren't sure exactly what caliber bullet it took, and had no idea of the age or origin. However, it was a neat thing to see on a Friday night.

But of course, being a librarian, I wasn't satisfied with that. When I got home that night I started researching "blow gun cane" online, and eventually found a few websites with pictures almost exactly like what my friend had, including some auction websites giving a ballpark value.

Now that was some pretty good information, but I noticed one website included the reference,

Similar to one illustrated on page 191 of Snyder's Canes.

Research is all about following clues, so my next stop was Amazon to figure out what book this "Snyder's Canes" might be. My best guess was Canes: From the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, by Jeffrey B. Snyder. Another quick search didn't turn up any option to read the book online, so I checked our library catalog - and my luck continued to hold. My library didn't have a copy, but another library in our consortium did.

Normally I'd just request the book and wait the few days for it to arrive. However, I was seeing my friend on Sunday, and I really wanted to show him what I found. So, while I was out running errands on Saturday, I swung by the Topsfield Town Library to check the book out - yay for Saturday hours, and yay for consortium reciprocal borrowing privileges*.

It's a funny experience to pick up a book for the very first time and be able to flip right to the page with your relevant information - behold**:

Canes book, page 191

The two bottom pictures are exactly it - awesome. Sunday morning I emailed my friend the links I had found and also show him the book. He was suitably impressed and grateful, but above all interested and happy to have the extra information.

The bottom line seems to be the cane is from France from the late 1800s, and probably fired a .32 caliber bullet. He has no plans to sell it or fire it, so for now, this information was exactly what he was looking for. And I of course ended up happy too, because what's more fun than a nice little weekend research project - involving an antique blowgun cane, no less?


*A special treat was that the library director was working the circ desk and checked me out - so a big yay for hands-on directors staffing service desks.

**By the way, this page was scanned with my library's public scanner - another library win!

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