October 15 is White Cane Safety Day. Looking back, I wondered when the white cane became white and the symbol for the blind. We all heard the story that white canes are white because of George A. Bonham. In 1930, Bonham, president of the Peoria Lions Club (Illinois), watched a man who was blind attempting to cross a street. The man’s cane was black, and motorists couldn’t see it, so Bonham proposed painting the cane white with a red stripe to make it more noticeable. But was he the first to think on this?
Robert C. Haven, manager of the National Safety Council, lived at 2641 Hennepin Ave., blocks from the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. He moved to the Minneapolis area for the Safety manager position in late 1920. He is credited for starting the first driver’s education classes for women in the country while living in Minneapolis.
His family claims he is the first to think of painting the canes of the blind white for identification and safety in 1921. That year, he had occasion to speak with the director of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. She wanted to know what the safety council could do to protect the blind from the new, fast cars on the Minneapolis city streets. Haven called her back with the suggestion that a meeting be scheduled with his team, staff of the society and blind people to discuss the matter. At that meeting a suggestion by Haven was proposed the canes of the blind be painted white. Along with the painting of the canes, that drivers be educated to stop when they encounter a blind pedestrian with a white cane.
Most of the blind at that meeting, were not in favor of painting the canes white for identification purposes. Some felt being obviously identified would make them targets on the streets for robbers, especially the door-to-door salesmen and piano tuners.
Many already used the walking cane as a travel tool, reaching ahead to locate a curb, steps, open coal shoots, and other obstacles encountered daily on the streets. Good blind travelers taught each other their individual techniques that worked on the city streets and country lanes. Already, those using canes, tapped the ground to listen for echoes or to determine through sound, textures of the surface under their feet, benches, or the exterior of a building. Some canes were white, most were not.
One blind man at the meeting, David Rau, a weaver at the Society, said he would give the white cane idea a try and carry a white cane on the streets for publicity. Haven went to work to get the press to come to their demonstration at the busy intersection of Lake and Hennepin near his home.
Rau (1878-1956) a blind, Russian immigrant, had a “special” graduation certificate from the school for the blind in Faribault in 1905. After leaving the school, he was placed in the Home for the Feeble Minded in Faribault, working as a rug weaver. In 1917, Rau moved to Minneapolis and got a job in the rug weaving department of the Society where he stayed for the next thirty-five years.
Havens had a cane painted white for Rau. He called the newspapers and asked them to bring a photographer. Several from the Safety council, the Society for the Blind and David Rau went to the corner of Hennepin and Lake Streets. Rau, having confidence in Haven, held the white cane as he was told, vertically, high in front of him and started across the street. The cars stopped. Everyone applauded.
The group moved to several other intersections, replaying the same drama. The cars stopped. Newspaper articles carried the story of how a white cane, carried by a blind person would make the blind, safe. The articles encouraged motorists to stop when they saw a white cane aloft at an intersection.
Blind persons were told to change their travel technique and hold the cane up and out straight in front of them where a driver could see it from a distance. The blind pedestrian was told to step off the curb and walk across the intersection without the cane on the ground. The Society began painting the canes of the blind white as a courtesy. Several years later, the Society began classes in how to travel with the white cane. For decades, staff at the Minnesota agencies for the blind saw the cane as an identification symbol, not a travel tool.
Days after the demonstration with Mr. Rau, a blind workshop worker from the Society told the staff that he was at a corner and held up his cane at the intersection. A truck stopped, the driver got out of the truck and helped him across the street. The Director of the Society called Haven and relayed the story. Haven was excited and continued a white cane awareness program until Haven left the job and the state in 1923.
The Minneapolis City Council passed its White Cane ordinance in 1933, (eleven years later) calling on drivers to give the right of way to blind pedestrians. Agency and blind alike worked to secure and promote the ordinance.
I wish to remark here that the technique taught the blind back then to cross the streets safely was to benefit the sighted. When the blind traveler came to the other side of the street, he had to locate the curb with his foot, or fall. Having the cane aloft made it harder to hear or feel curbs or obstacles such as another car stopped too far into the intersection. So, now the blind traveler hit the car. Well, that usually has a better outcome than the other way around.
And what about David Rau? He died of natural causes in 1956. In 1951, he was severely injured when hit by a car while carrying his white cane.
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