Dr. Johnson's Walking Staff.

By Mark Tully

Walking sticks or staffs were commonplace in the 18th century and were sometimes carried in place of a sidearm. The upper classes often had fancy sticks with heads decorated with ivory or gold -- sometimes these were even "loaded" with a lead weight in the end.1 Common folk also employed walking sticks, but rather than the fancy versions used by the upper classes, they often made due with a simple, hefty stick.

While roaming the streets of London disguised as a low ruffian, James Boswell states: "I had in my hand an old oaken stick battered against the pavement." 2 In another entry several years later Boswell hints that the walking staff was used as a weapon of sorts by Highland boys: "... [he always has] a stick in his hand, which I suppose is partly to help the young rogue to walk, partly to serve as a kind of arms to him." 3

Dr. Samuel Johnson was a well-known 18th-century English philosopher and author of a huge, still-in-print dictionary. He was a good friend of James Boswell, and the pair made a tour of the outer Hebrides of Scotland in 1773. During this adventure, Dr. Johnson lost his walking stick, an event which Boswell faithfully recorded on Saturday, 16 October: "The loss that I allude to was that of a the large oak-stick, which, as I formerly mentioned, he [Dr. Johnson] had brought with him from London. It was of great use to him in our peregrination; for, ever since his illness in 1766, he has had a weakness in his knees, and has not been able to walk easily. It had too the properties of a measure, for one nail was driven into it at the length of a foot, another at that of a yard. I could not persuade him out of a suspicion that it had been stolen. 'No, no, my friend,' said he, 'it is not to be expected that any man in Mull* who has got it will part with it. Consider, sir, the value of such a piece of timber here!'"4 Throughout Boswell's "Tour" he gives very specific measurements and dimensions for natural geographic features, buildings, and ruins -- many of them possibly derived from the increments on Johnson's staff.

SketchThe engraving of Dr. Johnson shown here was done by Thomas Trotter. It was first published in 1786 -- thirteen years after the Hebrides trip -- and shows Dr. Johnson in his travelling dress on the island of Mull. Even in this rather cheezy digitized version you can plainly see the two nails in Johnson's walking stick -- placed exactly as mentioned by Boswell (one is even with the bottom edge of the turned-down cuff on Dr. Johnson's boot, the other is visible below his right hand, about even with the top of his waistcoat pocket).

It might make a fun, useful, and authentic project to find a large stick and drive a few appropriately-spaced nails into it to make yourself a "Johnson Staff". The best wood for such a project would probably be oak, ash, or hickory, but any wood will do -- I made one out of of silver maple. It shouldn't be too tough to find yourself a downed branch or small sapling that can be pressed into service.

If we use the engraving and the spacing of the nails as our guide, Johnson's staff is approximately four feet, three inches tall, but for the best balance and handling the staff should be as high as the end-user's armpit. The best place to grab the staff is at a point even with your elbow, so make sure this area is smooth and free of knots, spurs, rough spots, potential splinters or other defects.

Johnson's Staff appears to have the bark intact, but unless your raw materials are fairly green, the bark will soon start to loosen and flake off. If you can't find a green stick I recommend beating mother nature at her own game and shaving the bark off with a knife. A coat of boiled linseed oil will bring out the grain and protect the bare wood -- use your hands to rub in several light coats for a smooth, satiny finish that will darken and mellow with age.

To help prevent the tip from splitting, it helps to round off the end with a knife. Don't whittle away too much at once -- the tip will be much more durable if you take your time and gradually round it over using lots of little cuts. If you plan to use your staff for everyday hiking, consider putting a rubber chair or crutch tip over the bottom end -- it will add years to the life of your staff.

Making an authentic hiking staff is also a perfect project for the kids in camp. Mentioning to them that it was the 18th century boy's "weapon" might spur their interest, although you might want to keep that detail to yourself (you don't want them running around the camp clubbing one another). Finding and shaving down a stick would keep the kids occupied for several hours, and if they add a few tacks, alà Johnson, they would have a great time running around measuring things at the various event sites!

NOTES: 1) See Calver and Bolton, History Written with a Pick and Shovel, New York, 19??, page ???
2) Boswell's London Journal, edited by Frederick A. Pottle, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1950, page 272, (2nd June, 1763).
3) A Tour to the Outer Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL. D., edited by Frederick A. Pottle, The Literary Guild, Inc., New York, 1936, page 178 (September 1773).
4) ibid.
*Mull is one the largest of the Outer Hebrides islands. The geography of the Hebrides is generally very rocky and barren with virtually no trees -- which is why Johnson's piece of "timber" would indeed be of great value to the locals.