Second-Hand Umbrella Sellers and Menders

It took some time for the umbrella, nicknamed brolly, gingham, or gamp, to become popular, but after it did, second-hand umbrella sellers and menders were in high demand. When ill-winds blew in, what other London street sellers lost in foul weather, the umbrella menders gained. The menders had two goals in mind: Repair or replace any broken umbrella, and the achieved this by crying “Umbrellas to mend?” or “Umbrellas to sell?” as they wandered “from street to street, with a bundle of old umbrellas and a few necessary tools under their arm [from] … house to house.”[1]

Umbrella Sellers From an Engraving by François Séraphin Delpech, Author's Collection

Umbrella seller from an engraving by François Séraphin Delpech. Author’s collection.

These umbrella sellers and menders quickly acquired the nickname “mushroom faker.” Additionally, as was usual, those who went by the name of mushroom faker, soon shortened it to “mush-faker” or “mushfaker.” The nickname was straightforward enough as an umbrella did resemble a mushroom with the “characteristic of being rapidly or suddenly raised, the mushroom itself springing up and attaining its full size in a very brief space of time.”[2] As for the term faker, it was an old cant term that meant mend or repair, which was also a term others added to their occupation, such as the person who repair broken china would be called a “chaneyfaker.”

When a customer offered a broken umbrella for repair, the mush-faker did his repairs on the street, in front of the person’s house with the hope of attracting other suburban customers. If the umbrella was beyond repair, the mush-faker “in exchange for the same, offer[ed] to make a slight reduction in his charge.”[3] This gave the mush-faker a stock of spare umbrella parts and allowed him “to make, out of two broken and torn umbrellas, a tolerably stout and serviceable gingham.”[4] However, if for some reason a mush-faker ran out of parts or second-hand umbrellas, a large stock of broken or damaged umbrellas could be purchased in London at Petticoat Lane, some five and a half miles from Madame Tussaud‘s Wax Museum.

A High Wind in the Park Suddenly Changing An Umbrella's Internals to Externals, Courtesy of Library of Congress

“A High Wind in the Park” suddenly changing an umbrella’s internals to externals, Courtesy of Library of Congress.

It was not infrequent that an umbrella needed repairs. Accidents befell these rain protectors as frequently as it rained in England. The most prominent of the casualties was “abrasion and tearing of the skin, fracture of the ribs, [or] decapitation and decollation [of the umbrella].”[5] Abrasions and tears occurred with daily use, and fractured ribs resulted from “the unlucky intrusion of some obstreperous gust of wind, suddenly changing internals into externals, and reversing the order of manufacture.”[6] (Such gusts were fairly common as is shown in the illustration above.) Decapitation and decollation arose “from equally sudden and unforeseen calamities, or by the unfortunate concussions [of such].”[7]

For all the abrasions, tears, fractured ribs, decapitations, and decollations, the skillful mush-fakers could surgically repair and restore nearly all the mangled and damaged umbrellas presented to them. One person described these repairs, stating:

“A whole new skin may be shortly supplied, and your old friend made to walk forth like a young companion — ribs may be bound up, and heads put on — better heads than before: all these things may be done, to such an extent that it is doubtful when an old and battled umbrellas may be fairly discarded.”[8]

In the evening, after the mush-faker had wandered the suburban streets, some set up a temporary shop. These temporary spots were located near a street market, at an approach to a bridge, or near a crowded London thoroughfare. There the mush-fakers hawked their “bundle of resuscitated umbrellas, [a pile] under one arm, and one expanded in the hand of the other, uttering, in a low tone, the prices — the remarkably low prices — of these fallen occupants of the hands of the rich and noble.”[9] Should you have been tempted to examine one of the resuscitated silk umbrellas, it was suggested you “elevate it near a lamp (at a pretty considerable distance from which these dispensers of unfortunates always take care to station themselves), and … read the history of its former life in its varied restorations — all ingeniously accomplished secundum artem.”[10]

Other umbrella sellers, similar to the mush-faker, were “stool men.” They were unethical because they made old umbrellas appear new, but they did not disclose this fact to their customers. They added handles and fittings or dipped the silk in gum to make it stiff and glossy as if new. But their shiny umbrellas were “more for show than wear.”[11] Stool men also possessed the “gift of gab” using pleasing words to hawk umbrellas pretending to be legitimate umbrella sellers. Their pleasing words encouraged unsuspecting customers to buy what they thought were “new” umbrellas. However, upon the first rainstorm these “modes of deception [were] … detected, and purchasers … [did] not renew their … [business and the stool men moved on].”[12]

The Stool-Man Selling His Umbrella, Author's Collection

The stool man selling his umbrellas. Author’s collection.

A son of a mush-faker who claimed he was born under an oiled-silk umbrella in a ditch, preferred the old umbrellas to the new ones. He noted:

“I entertain a most profound respect for an old umbrella, and I think that in no case is the ingratitude of man more flagrantly exhibited, than in the neglect and contempt with which those faithful guardians from the storm are treated in their declining age. After protecting our heads for years from the pelting rain, the rattling hail, the driving sleet, or the drizzling mist, they are at last thrown into some dirty corner to moulder in unmerited oblivion. This is a severe reproach to human nature, a blot on the escutcheon of manhood.”[13]

Mush-fakers must have thought so too, because they continued to repair umbrellas throughout the 1800s. Even today, the mush-faker still exists and is still willing to repair your umbrella and restore it to perfect working order.

References:

  • [1] Thomson, J., Street Life in London, 1877, p. 75.
  • [2] Mayhew, Henry, London Labor and the London Poor, Vol. 2, 1861, p. 115.
  • [3] Thomson, J., p. 63.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, 1891, p. 340.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 340-341.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 341.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Thomson, J. p. 64.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 76.
  • [13] The Monthly Repertory of English Literature, Vol. 5, 1823, p. 347.

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