In North America, a walking cane is a walking stick with a curved top much like a shepherd's staff, but shorter. Thus, although they are called "canes", they are usually made of material heavier than cane, such as wood or metal.
In the United States, presidents have often carried canes and received them as gifts. The Smithsonian has a cane given to George Washington by Benjamin Franklin. It features a gold handle in the shape of a Phrygian cap. In modern times, walking sticks are usually only seen with formal attire. Retractable canes that reveal such properties as hidden compartments, pool sticks, or blades are popular among collectors. Handles have been made from many substances, both natural and manmade. Carved and decorated canes have turned the functional into the fantastic.
The idea of a fancy cane as a fashion accessory to go with top hat and tails has been popularized in many song-and-dance acts, especially by Fred Astaire in several of his films and songs such as Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and Puttin' On the Ritz, where he exhorts "Come, let's mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks or umbrellas in their mitts." He danced with a cane frequently.
Some canes, known as "Tippling Canes" or "Tipplers", have hollowed-out compartments near the top where flasks or vials of alcohol could be hidden and sprung out on demand.
When used as a mobility or stability aide, canes are generally used in the hand opposite the injury or weakness. This may appear counter-intuitive, but this allows the cane to be used for stability in a way that lets the user shift much of their weight onto the cane and away from their weaker side as they walk. Personal preference, or a need to hold the cane in their dominant hand, means some cane users choose to hold the cane on their injured side.
In the U.S. Congress in 1856, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts criticized Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina for the Kansas–Nebraska Act. When a relative of Andrew Butler, Preston Brooks, heard of it, he felt that Sumner's behavior demanded retaliation, and beat him senseless on the floor of the Senate with a gutta-percha walking cane. Although this event is commonly known as "the caning of Senator Charles Sumner", it was not a caning in the normal (especially British) sense of formal corporal punishment with a much more flexible and usually thinner rattan.