Umbrella Etiquette and Manners

umbrella etiquette
Rainy Weather and the Umbrella, Author’s Collection

“There is one piece of property, which is nobody’s property, or everybody’s property, or is not property at all — and that is, Umbrellas.“[1] That was the opinion of one nineteenth century writer and to a degree it was true because no article was borrowed more frequently or returned less than the umbrella. In fact, it was noted over and over in etiquette books and articles printed in the nineteenth century:

“Frequently a borrowed umbrella is never thought of by the borrower till after the weather clears up, the lender most probably suffering inconvenience for want of it. Often, it is detained till the next rain, when the lender has to take the trouble of sending for it. And then it is very possible it may not be found at all, some person in the mean time having nefariously carried it off. In such a case it is a matter of common honesty for the careless borrower to replace the umbrella with a new one, as … [an] empty expression of regret or unmeaning apologies will [not] be sufficient compensation for a substantial loss.”[2]

Although some nineteenth century people may have thought they did not need to heed the rules when it came to borrowing an umbrella, etiquette books disagreed. In fact, they also offered umbrella etiquette advice about the proper use and handling of an umbrella, even when not braving a storm.

Umbrella Misfortunes and Umbrella Etiquette
Umbrella Misfortunes, Author’s Collection

One of the first things people needed to know was the proper way to carry an umbrella. Gentlemen were advised that when walking in stormy weather and carrying an umbrella, they should “hold it so that you can see the way clear before you … [but also] avoid striking your umbrella against those which pass you.”[3] Women were likewise advised to “always hold an umbrella … so that it will clear your bonnet, and leave the space before your face open, that you may see your way clearly.”[4]

When out in the wind, an umbrella needed to be handled so as to prevent it from being turned inside out. One umbrella dealer offered this advice on how to carry an umbrella properly in the wind:

“In order to guard it … and protect it from damage it should be firmly grasped by both hands. Let one hand seize it near the handle end of the stick about the … place where it would be held in the mildest June shower. Then let the other take an equally firm hold far up the stick close to the point where the spring holds the outstretched ribs. Thus you cannot only protect yourself from the rain as much as possible but you render a collapse of your umbrella almost out of the question. If a woman is out in a blow and tries to hold her skirts up in one hand and control her umbrella with the other, it is not the least wonder that she meets with mishap.”[5]

Walking with an Umbrella, Author's Collection
Walking with an Umbrella, Author’s Collection

If a sudden storm appeared and a gentleman met a woman without an umbrella, it was noted that he could “with perfect propriety, offer [his] … umbrella … If she accepts it, and asks your address to return it, leave it with her; if she hesitates, and does not wish to deprive you of the use of it, you may offer to accompany her to her destination, and then do not open a conversation, let your manner be respectful and when you leave her, let her thank you, assure her of the pleasure it has given you to be of service, bow, and leave her.”[6] When walking with a lady, a man was also advised to let the umbrella cover her perfectly, “but hold it so that you will not touch her bonnet.”[7] If a gentleman found himself in stormy weather with two ladies, umbrella etiquette dictated that he let them carry the umbrella between them and walk outside of the umbrella, because “nothing can be more absurd than for a gentleman to walk between two ladies, holding the umbrella himself; while in this way, he is perfectly protected, the ladies received upon their dresses and cloaks the little streams of water which run from the points of the umbrella.”[8] However, the Berkshire Chronicle, countered such advice claiming in 1846 that “a gentleman who has occasion to walk with two ladies within one umbrella, should always go in the middle — that secures a dry coat to himself, and is shown no partiality to either of the ladies.”[9]

There were other expectations for umbrella carriers. For instance, if a man chose to carry an umbrella and used it as a cane, he was advised that “no gentleman swings his … umbrella about when walking, as he would be in danger of bestowing a gratuitous and unexpected blow on a passer-by, who might make him rue his carelessness and rudeness.[10] One umbrella dealer noted the proper way to handle a wet umbrella upon arriving at a destination and before entering a house or building was “to unfold it and shake it out”[11] thereby hopefully prevent watery puddles when the umbrella was carried inside. If women were invited to someone’s home for an evening party and it was raining upon their arrival, a gentlemen was advised to “attend, with an umbrella, to assist in sheltering them on their way into the house … in their transit from the coach to the vestibule.”[12] Additionally, when a gentleman found he needed to make a rainy weather visit to offer condolences or congratulations, he was supposed to keep his hat in his hand to show the host that he did not “intend to remain to dine or sup with him.”[13] If invited in, he might give his hat and gloves to a servant, but his wet umbrella was to remain in the hall, preferably safely stowed in an umbrella rack.

Parts of an Umbrella, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Parts of an Umbrella, Courtesy of Wikipedia

When using public transportation, such as an omnibus, there were various manners people needed to observe in relation to their umbrella. If the umbrella was dripping:

“[A person was charged] with the task of seeing that it annoys no one but himself. If he can, at the same time, protect himself, well and good, but he must be altruistic in the matter and care for others first; the alternative being to prove himself lacking in one form of good manners. He must not even let his wet umbrella lean up against a vacant part of the cushioned seat, rendering it damp for the next comer.”[14]

There was also the ferule end of an umbrella to consider, and as it was the most dangerous part of an umbrella, one writer noted:

“Carrying … [an] umbrella under the arm with the ferule protruding at the back and threatening the eyes of those who walk behind, is always a reprehensible practice, and one that is fraught with danger, and it is perhaps more … dangerous when the proprietor is ascending or descending the steps of an omnibus. At such moments passengers are liable to sudden checks from various causes, and the resultant backward jerk can be quite annoying enough to those behind without the aggravation of a pointed stick assaulting them. I have seen a girl’s hat torn off her head in this way, its numerous securing pins making havoc in her coiffure and eliciting lively expressions of pain.”[15]

There were numerous other umbrella etiquette rules. When visiting museums or art galleries, it was common knowledge visitors should not touch anything and that included never touching anything with an umbrella either. One book went so far as to point out “this [behavior of not touching items] is the first evidence of common breeding.”[16] There were also rules when attending church with an umbrella. A person was allowed to carry their umbrella to the pew, but they were to proceed carefully and not distract church goers by dropping it.

When it came to navigating walkways with an umbrella, Good Housekeeping asserted that women were impolite in comparison to men. “No one can tell why a man with an umbrella is polite and considerate while a woman with an umbrella … becomes cross, impolite, and reckless as to any harm she may do.”[17] In this case, harm included her umbrella being “held steadily before the face and pushed along stubbornly, against other umbrellas and hats; the points are thrust into people’s eyes and faces, and down their necks, nice shiny silk hats are sprinkled and knocked off and the woman goes on, bumping and being bumped, absolutely refusing to admit, in her way of managing her umbrella, that there is any one on the sidewalk but herself.”[18]

Vanity Fair Character of 1895- Montague Shearman With His Umbrella, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Vanity Fair Character of 1895- Montague Shearman With His Umbrella, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Besides being polite with an umbrella, it was suggested women purchase and wear a “storm dress.” A storm dress consisted of “both dress and cloak … made of a woolen material, (varying of course with the season,) which will shed water.”[19] When choosing the colors for the storm dress, it was suggested that “white skirts are entirely out of place, as, if the dress is held up, they will be in a few moment disgracefully dirty. A woolen skirt, made quite short, to clear the muddy streets, is the proper thing.”[20] But a woman’s storm dress was not complete without her umbrella. She was advised above all to carry a large umbrella because “the little light umbrellas are very pretty, no doubt, but to be of any real protection in a storm, the umbrella should be large enough to protect the whole dress.”[21]

Men, on the other hand, did not have had to think about protecting a dress, but they did have to think about whether or not to walk the streets with an umbrella. One etiquette book pointed out:

“Some men are always seen in the streets with an umbrella under their arm. Such a foible may be permitted to such men as Mr. Southey and the Duke of Wellington: but in ordinary men it looks like affectation, and the monotony is exceedingly boring to the sight.”[22]

Yet, perhaps, the best piece of advice nineteenth century etiquette experts provided in relation to the umbrella was this tidbit: “A visit and an umbrella should always be returned.”[23]

References:

  • [1] “Umbrellas,” in The Odd Fellow, June 19, 1841, p. 1.
  • [2] Beeton, Samuel Orchart Beeton, All About Etiquette; or, The Manners of Polite Society, 1875, p. 216.
  • [3] Hartley, Cecil B., The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1873, p. 67.
  • [4] Hartley, Florence, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness, 1872, p. 112.
  • [5] Friends Intelligencer, Vol. 48, 1891, p. 430.
  • [6] Hartley, 1873, p. 67-68.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 67. 
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Berkshire Chronicle, July 25, 1846, p. 4.
  • [10] Howard, Lady Constance Eleanora C., Etiquette, 1885, p. 347.
  • [11] Friends Intelligencer, p. 430.
  • [12] Beeton, p. 298.
  • [13] Hartley, 1873, p. 82. 
  • [14] Humphry, C.E., Manners for Men, 1897, p. 38.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Keim, De Benneville Randolph, Hand-book of Official and Social Etiquette and Public Ceremonials at Washington, 1889, p. 242.
  • [17] Good Housekeeping, Vol. 19, 1894, p. 87.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Hartley, 1872, p. 30.
  • [20] Ibid.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] The Laws of Etiquette: Or, Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, 1836, p. 164. 
  • [23] Etiquette for Gentlemen, 1856, p. 19.

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