Umbrella Mishaps and Fatalities in the 1800s

Umbrellas were deemed a “crude and curious invention” when they first appeared in England in the 1600s. It took at least fifty years before women began to carry them, and at least another hundred years passed before men used them. One reason men did not immediately unfurl these rain protectors was umbrellas were considered effeminate. If a man used one, he endured name calling, jeers, and “for many years those who used umbrellas in the streets were exposed to the insults of the mob and to the persistent and very natural animosity of the hackney coachman, who bespattered them with mud and lashed them furiously with their whips.”[1] Eventually, however, the idea that the umbrella was not effeminate and was a functional and utilitarian tool, grasp London men just as heartily as London men grasp the umbrella on gray stormy days.

Umbrella Mishaps

Parts of an umbrella. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the late 1700 and early 1800s, umbrellas were a common sight on London streets and people like Eliza de Fueillide, Frances “Fanny” Nelson, or the Duchess of Devonshire could be found carrying one. In fact, umbrellas became so common, streets became clogged with them, which usually then resulted in some calamitous or catastrophic consequence as umbrella users often damaged something or someone with their umbrella. One common target was the shopkeeper’s windows, which was also one reason why “fashionable prejudices ran against umbrellas.”[2] Numerous shop owners complained of the colorful, but deadly umbrellas going through their front store windows. One man who carried an umbrella and had been involved in several such umbrella mishaps gave some rather questionable advice to his fellow umbrella carriers:

“Should you break a shop-window with your parapluie (no unlikely thing), always walk on quietly as if nothing … happened; if the street be crowded you are almost certain to escape.”[3]

Because shopkeepers suffered so many broken windows, they were on guard, but it still was difficult for them to ascertain who caused the damage when a window was broken. This was because there were “hundreds — nay thousands and tens of thousands of umbrellas all hoisted, all impinging and conflicting and pushing each other by; or else rising and lowering.”[4] Because it was so hard to tell who had done the damage, shop owners often seized upon the closest umbrella owner, innocent or not, “because he is a determined enemy to the whole race of umbrellas, and he is resolved that an umbrella [carrier] shall pay the damage an umbrella committed.”[5]

Broken windows were not the only damage caused by the umbrella. In fact, umbrellas could be dangerous to humans. One theatregoer showed how dangerous an umbrella could be while inside a theatre. After his favorite actor came out on stage for his final bow, the theatregoer was overcome with such excitement and energetic applause that he used his umbrella and “hammered away” on the floor in front of him. He did so with such unbridled enthusiasm he “lost aim, and inflicted several severe blows on the heels of a tall fierce-looking whiskered man in silk stockings.”[6] Thus, a duel almost ensued.

A Play Bill from one Theater in the 1800s, Courtesy of Library of Congress

A play bill from one theatre in the 1800s.  Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Umbrellas also prodded, struck, and poked pedestrians, which sometimes resulted in injury or deadly consequences. One author noted that very few people had “not suffered, or at least been put in bodily fear from the dangerous manner in which some [people] delight … [in carrying] this odious instrument,”[7] and another man, who I shall call Henry, gave an account of his “pains and penalties” as he maneuvered London’s streets causing all sorts of umbrella mishaps.

The first disaster that befell Henry was when he walking with the cup handle turned outwards and tucked under his arm. The handle caught a lady’s silk dress “and made as ‘envious a rent’ … as Casca’s dagger did in Caesar’s mantle.”[8] The next time a disaster befell Henry he was holding his umbrella in the middle, and as he briskly passed a man, Henry accidentally delivered “a shrewd thrust in the groin.”[9] The injury caused the man to writhe and groan so loudly it attracted a huge crowd, and Henry was stuck for one hour as “a hundred tongues expostulating [and said the harmed man should sue him.]”[10] The third time Henry went out with his umbrella, he secured it under his arm with it slightly inclined and pointing backwards. Everything was fine until Henry stopped abruptly to glance in a shop window. At that point, the umbrella’s ferrule jabbed “the mouth of a person behind and sent him backwards on the pavement with a vengeance.”[11]

umbrella mishaps

Damage done by one umbrella owner to his fellow pedestrians. Public domain.

Henry wasn’t the only umbrella user to cause injury or pain unintentionally. This can be demonstrated by another story about umbrella mishaps wrought by another umbrella user. The story begins when a gentleman, who, along with a few others, pulled out his umbrella as protection from a rainstorm.

“[The gentleman said,] ‘I suffered myself quietly to be carried along by the torrent, and secretly rejoiced in the shelter which I possessed. All at once a man, who likewise carried an umbrella, and was probably in great haste, for his arms were like a couple of battering-rams, that knocked down all before him, ran against me. Our umbrellas got entangled, and his forcibly pulled mine out of my hand. It was impossible for it to fall to the ground; the people were much too close for that; so it tumbled for twenty yards together, from one head to another, knocking off, in its progress, hats, spectacles, bonnets, and caps; in short, spreading havoc and consternation wherever it went. At length it was seized and torn into a thousand pieces. Luckily the good folks knew not to whom it belonged, otherwise [I] … might perhaps have been doomed to a similar fate.'”[12]

One reason for the all the unintentional umbrella mishaps and accidents was often attributed to how people carried their umbrellas. Some people carried them as if they were walking sticks, and others under the arm as if a “horse-soldier.” Still others carried them upright as if a musket, which was considered to be “good, as it keeps the persons behind you at a civil distance.”[13] There were also a myriad of other ways to carry the umbrella, and the drawing below form 1876 illustrates what was called “Umbrella Characteristics” and shows who carried the umbrella and how they supposedly carried it. Starting in the lower lefthand corner and traveling clockwise you have “a Variety of the Gay and Festive; the Pokeyoney Cont. (much admired); the Heavy Military, the Sporting; the Deprecatory; Who Wouldn’t be an Umbrella? [in regards to the beauty the woman possessed]; the Humberellers (generally waved gracefully in the sky); the Volunteer;” and in the center “the Gay and Festive.”

Umbrella mishaps - umbrella characteristics

Umbrella characteristics. Public domain.

One gentleman claimed the best way to carry an umbrella was to grasp it “nearly in the centre swing it violently backwards and forwards as you walk; thus you may contrive to keep your line of march tolerably unobstructed both in front and rear.”[14] He also offered other questionable advice:

“When it rains, keep your umbrella … about the level of the foreheads of the passers-by, by this means you will knock off their hats with astonishing facility. If you meet a person considerably taller than yourself, attempt to raise your umbrella above his: reverse this rule with a short man; by a dexterous twist you may strike your adversary’s umbrella into the mud, or at all events damage it and his face considerably.”[15]

Although some umbrella users purposely and pleasurably inflicted pain on whomsoever the chose, most umbrella mishaps were not malicious nor intentional. However, that did not stop one writer from terming the umbrella “the deadliest weapon of modern times.”[16] The writer may have well been correct as it was observed that “‘Another Fatal Umbrella Accident!” was becoming a much too common headline in the newspapers.

There were also numerous hospital reports that backed up the danger of the umbrella. For instance, one victim “received a thrust in the orbit from the ferrule end of an umbrella … and died in a state of coma on the twenty-third day after the accident.”[17] Another victim’s left eye was “prodded” by an umbrella’s ferrule and although it was thought he would recover, he developed an infection and died twenty-one days after admission to the hospital. There was also a complaint about umbrellas when “carried under the arm at right angles to the body in a crowded thoroughfare … Combined with a big parcel and the stairs of a jolting bus, it affords opportunities of self-destruction … and within the last fortnight it has brought death to two unfortunate people.”[18]

Despite all the umbrella mishaps and fatal consequences, the umbrella remained popular. Today it continues to cover the heads of people wanting protection from the rain. In the twenty-first century, most umbrellas are manufactured in China, where in one city alone, it is estimated there are more than 1,000 umbrella factories and that some 33 million umbrellas are sold in the United States annually. Since the 1700s, billions of umbrellas have been sold with improvements and changes occurring so readily there now exists hundreds of thousands of patents worldwide.

References:

  • [1] The Living Age, Vol. 176, 1887, p. 768.
  • [2] The Portfolio of Entertaining and Instructive Varieties in History, Science, Literature, the Fine Arts, Vol. 1, 1823, p. 408.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] The Newcastle Magazine, Vol. 6, 1827, p. 84.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] The New Monthly Magazine, Part 2, 1830, p. 464.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 454.
  • [8] The Gleaner, Or, Hereford Album, Vol. 1., 1826, p. 180.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 181.
  • [12] The Minerva, or, Literary, Entertaining, and Scientific Journal, Vol. 1, 1824, p. 324.
  • [13] Galignani’s Magazine and Paris Monthly Review, Vol. 5, 1823, p. 346.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] To-day, Vol. 3, 1894, p. 210.
  • [17] Lawson, George, Injuries of the Eye, Orbit, and Eyelids, 1867, p. 358.
  • [18] To-day, p. 210.

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