Umbrellas and Their History: How They Made a Difference

Umbrellas and their history in the United Kingdom began with an occasional reference to the umbrella in the early 1600s. It happened when Robert Toft bequeathed in his will of 1618 “an umbrello of perfumed leather with a gould fryndge abowte yt which I broughte out of Italie.”[1] Another early reference to the umbrella occurred in 1624. At that time, a woman stated of her husband, “Now you have got a shadow, an umbrella, to keep the scorching world’s opinion from your fair credit.”[2]

Umbrellas and their history

1795 Print of Sir Thomas Bond Bart carrying an umbrella. Courtesy of Library of Congress,

The umbrella became more familiar during the Restoration Period of the mid 1600s thanks to Catharine of Braganza. She was Charles II’s Portuguese bride, and she brought a parasol to shade her complexion from the hot sun. At the time, people still relied on their cloaks to protect themselves from the rain.

When the umbrella began to be carried by regular people, it was first used by women and considered a feminine article. However, sometime in the late 1600s or early 1700s, probably because of England’s inclement weather, the idea to water-proof umbrellas occurred. Umbrellas were then “made of oiled silk, [which was] very clumsy and difficult to open when wet; the stick and trimmings were [also] heavy and inconvenient.”[3] Improvements occurred and by the early 1700s, it was fairly common for women to carry umbrellas in England and France as protection from the rain.

As late as 1775 or 1776, the umbrella was still not used by men in the United Kingdom or in America. Men in these countries still thought of the umbrella as “effeminate.” However, the umbrella had become popular with both sexes in Paris. A British officer named James Wolfe noted the umbrella’s popularity in Paris in 1752 and claimed that Parisian people used the umbrella for both sun and rain. A mention of the umbrella being used during the rain involves Madame Récamier, the French socialite, who visited a Madame de Boigne at Chatenay, near Paris. While at Chatenay Madame de Boigne reported:

“Yes, certainly I knew Professor R—, whom you had to dinner. He is one of the most wearisome men I have ever met. … I was there with Madame Récamier. He arrived early, and left late. The last time, not knowing what to do, Madame Récamier sent him out walking thought the wood of Verrièrs, in the beating rain for three hours, under the umbrella of Ampère. They returned so wet that is necessary to light a fire to dry them before dinner. Madame Récamier said laughing: ‘This will save us a few minutes more from the boredom of the dear professor.'”[4]

Juliette Récamier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Knowing that Frenchmen were using the umbrella is possibly why some Englishmen decided to use it. Unfortunately, they found they 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.”[5] It was not until a brave man by the name of Jonas Hanway, who was also the founder of the Magdalen Hospital and also happened to be a vociferous tea opponent, “ventured to dare public reproach and ridicule by carrying an umbrella.”[6] Hanway’s brave act started the fad of men using the umbrella in London.

 

Jonas Hanway, the First London Male to Ever Carry an Umbrella, Author's Collection

Jonas Hanway, the first London male to ever carry an umbrella. Author’s collection.

Before the umbrella was common, people unfamiliar with them were often awed by them. A resident of Tauton, England, recalled:

“Two umbrellas existed there; one, the property of the clergyman, being hung up in the church porch every Sunday, to be admired by the incoming congregation.”[7]

There was also a Dr. John Jamieson that bought an umbrella in Paris in the early 1780s and when he returned to Glasgow, he remarked that “he was stared at with his umbrella.”[8] Many people thought them “a perfect phenomenon” and did not understand exactly how they worked. One man fortunate enough to borrow a newfangled umbrella from a friend on a rainy day, soon found he could not enter his residence with it because the umbrella was too wide. He returned it to his friend stating “this’ll never do; there’s nae a door in a’ my house that’ll tak it in.”[9]

Even though some people believed umbrellas could not fit through doors, other people considered them parachutes because parachutes were said to be “nothing more nor less than a huge umbrella.”[10] This idea resulted in a man well-known to the King of Siam entertaining the King and his court by leaping from great heights with “two Umbrellas, with long slender handles, fastened to his girdle.”[11]

Another attempt at using the umbrella as a parachute occurred on 24 July 1837. On that day a Mr. Robert Cocking ascended in a balloon from Vauxhall Gardens with the aid of Mr. Edward Spencer and Mr. Charles Green in “a wedge-like form … intended to cleave through the air, instead of offering … resistance to it … [as it had] not been proved that the principle was wrong.”[12] After liberating himself from the balloon, however, Cocking discovered his umbrella/parachute did not work, and he hit the ground and died soon after. After Cocking’s death until the late 1800s, the idea of parachutes and parachuting remained unpopular and the only time you saw them was at a circus or carnival.

Mr. Edward Spencer, the man who accompanied Mr. Robert Cocking in his fatal experiment of 1837, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Mr. Edward Spencer, the man who accompanied Mr. Robert Cocking in his fatal experiment of 1837. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Besides serving as a parachute, umbrellas at some point also acquired a superstitious belief that bad luck followed anyone who opened an umbrella indoors. How this superstition originated is somewhat confusing and people do not always agree on its origins. Some people claim it originated with the Egyptians, who used umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun, and, therefore, to open one indoors offended the God of the Sun and was bad luck. Another possible origin for the superstitious belief occurred in the eighteenth century and was first recorded in the 1880s in Shropshire:

“It is unlucky to open an umbrella in the house, especially if it is held over the head when it becomes a sign of death.”[13]

At the time, umbrellas were extremely large and difficult to open indoors, and, when attempted, the umbrella invariably broke something or caused injuries, which then resulted in family squabbles and created the belief it was bad luck to open it indoors.

Improvements in the late 1770s helped umbrellas to become more common. As mentioned, they had originally been made from oiled silk, but in the late 1770s they started to make them from silk, cotton, or alpaca. The umbrella’s frame also became lighter, which made them easier to carry. They were also more readily available and therefore more accessible to the common person. Before long the umbrella was so accepted, The American Magazine noted “that a man is known by his umbrella.”[14] Additionally, between 1780 and 1866 there were 300 English patents to improve or change the umbrella, and soon it came in every “conceivable hue … from the Napoleon-blue silk of the Parisian exquisite to the coarse red or green cotton of the Turkish rayah.”[15]

A Meeting of Umbrellas - James Gillray 1782, Courtesy of Wikipedia

“A Meeting of Umbrellas,” by James Gillray 1782. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Umbrellas were so common by the early 1800s, they disappeared regularly from coat racks, lobbies, and hallways, which caused one writer to warn:

“Mankind are divided into two great classes in reference to umbrellas—one which buys umbrellas, and one which does not.”[16]

Another writer voiced a similar sentiment.

“The familiar friend who would regard with horror the appropriation of your purse will annex your umbrella without scruple.”[17]

A third person reasoned an umbrella loss in this way:

“A great deal of the vagrancy of umbrellas is owning to their being so frequently exchanged at public places by what is called mistake; that is to say, a gentleman takes some other person’s umbrella out of the trap … instead of his own, which he leaves behind. There is one most notable phenomenon attending these mistakes, namely, that no one ever mistakes a worse umbrella for his own.”[18]

References:

  • [1] Fairholt, Frederick William, Costume in England, 1885, p. 403.
  • [2] The Popular Educator, Vol. 3, 1876, p. 371.
  • [3] Umbrellas and Their History, 1864, p. 20-21.
  • [4] Turquan, Joseph, A Great Coquette, 1891, p. 311.
  • [5] Stevens, John Austin, etal., The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, Vol. 18, 1887, p. 259.
  • [6] Umbrellas and Their History, p. 16.
  • [7] Dickens, Charles, All the Year Round, Vol. 8, 1872, p. 451.
  • [8] The Saturday Magazine, Vol 20-21, 1842, p. 100.
  • [9] Umbrellas and Their History, p. 34. 
  • [10] Ibid., p. 24.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 25.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 27.
  • [13] Jackson, Georgina Frederica, Shropshire Folk-lore, 1885, p. 280.
  • [14] The American Magazine, Vol. 29, 1890, p. 493.
  • [15] Umbrellas and Their History, p. 5. 
  • [16] Graham’s Illustrated Magazine of Literature, Romance, Art, and Fashion, Volume 10, p. 372.
  • [17] The American Magazine, p. 494.
  • [18] Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, Volume 2, p. 1834, Page 65.

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