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How Bigotry, Urban Design, And Class Warfare Shaped The Umbrella

Umbrellas were shunned when they were first introduced in Britain, and for good reason–made of whalebone, they were unwieldy and expensive. But bad design is only part of the story.

How Bigotry, Urban Design, And Class Warfare Shaped The Umbrella
[Photo: David Marcu/Unsplash]

When Jonas Hanway–businessman, philanthropist, and social campaigner–returned to England from travels through Russia and the Middle East, he brought with him many treasures and curiosities, among them some revolutionary ideas about the potential of umbrellas. He had no doubt observed them employed as sun protection in Persia, and back at home found them rather useful for protecting one’s clothing and wig from the rain. He was, however, quite singular in his preferences. The majority of Londoners were baffled–even affronted–by his enthusiasm for brollies. Despite the curious stares, bewilderment, and heckling he met with on the streets, Hanway persisted with his umbrella until the end of his life. It was only after his death that his good sense caught on with the general populace.

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For some time the umbrella was linked with ideas of shabbiness, dishevelment, and limited means–in short, with the lower classes. The (ever-critical) Marquis Caraccioli sneered at umbrella use as “a sure sign that one possesses no carriage.” In his memoir of 1770, an English footman named John MacDonald recorded the harassment he received on the streets for daring to carry a silk umbrella: “Frenchman, why do you not get a coach, Monsieur?” After nearly 2,000 years of using capes, oiled cloaks, and mantles for protection against the rain, this new-fangled contraption was viewed with something approaching disbelief. Who did people think they were, to defy the very skies? To parade their frugality on the streets? Or, to take a slightly different view of it, to pretend to a luxury–sheltered transport–only available to the wealthy?

[Photo: Craig Whitehead/Unsplash]
None are more eloquent on the subject of brollies than Charles Dickens. Dickens’s work is richly populated with umbrellas and umbrella-wielders. In The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination (1973), literary critic John Carey expounds on their role as social indicators: “Elaborately undignified, they immediately locate their owner in the lower class.” Sarah Gamp, the nurse in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit (serialized from 1843 to 1844), is, although only a minor character in the story, arguably one of the best known. Her extraordinary brand of nursing–an admixture of sloth, greed, drunkenness, and extravagant self-admiration–is underscored throughout by her ever-present umbrella: “a species of gig umbrella; the latter article in colour like a faded leaf, except where a circular patch of lively blue had been dexterously let in at the top.” Like Mrs. Gamp herself, this umbrella is not known for its subtlety:

The umbrella . . . was particularly hard to be got rid of, and several times thrust out its battered brass nozzle from improper crevices and chinks, to the great terror of the other passengers. Indeed, in her intense anxiety to find a haven of refuge for this chattel, Mrs. Gamp so often moved it, in the course of five minutes, that it seemed not one umbrella but fifty.

In fact, one begins to suspect it of having designs on the good health of those nearby:

Tom, with Ruth upon his arm, stood looking down from the wharf, as nearly regardless as it was in the nature of flesh and blood to be, of an elderly lady behind him, who had brought a large umbrella with her, and didn’t know what to do with it. This tremendous instrument had a hooked handle; and its vicinity was first made known to him by a painful pressure on the windpipe, consequent upon its having caught him round the throat. Soon after disengaging himself with perfect good humour, he had a sensation of the ferule in his back; immediately afterwards, of the hook entangling his ankles; then of the umbrella generally, wandering about his hat, and flapping at it like a great bird; and, lastly, of a poke or thrust below the ribs, which gave him such exceeding anguish, that he could not refrain from turning around to offer a mild remonstrance.

It didn’t take long for “gamp” to enter the vernacular, not only as a byword for “umbrella” but for “nurse” as well: “two things,” as John Bowen notes in Dickens’s Umbrellas, “admitted to the bourgeois home that are meant to protect you from harm but which may in fact have the opposite effect. Like Robinson Crusoe, Mrs. Gamp leapt off of the page and into the vocabulary of the day.

A fascinating real-world example of a disruptive, disreputable brolly may be found in the figure of Theodora Grahn, a late 18th-century and almost undoubtedly transgender person who lived and dressed as a man. Theodora–the self-styled Baron de Verdion (1744–1802)–possessed an almost unquenchable appetite for both eating and drinking, and was described in Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters (a telling title in itself) as “extremely grotesque: from her large cocked hat and bagged hair, with her boots, cane, and umbrella, which she carried in all weathers. The latter of which she invariably carried in her hand, resting upon her back.”

As if the description wasn’t censorious enough, the brief biography from which it is drawn tells of a lifetime of struggles against men determined to reveal the baron’s “true” female sex: One attack was humiliating enough to drive Verdion to resettle in London from his native Berlin. As Crawford points out, in a period when umbrellas were more or less maligned, their ready association with such a radical (for the time) individual could hardly have improved the umbrella’s reputation in conservative British social circles.

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Deep-seated and pervasive though it was, disdain for the umbrella didn’t just come down to social mores, or British people being “stuck in the muck of custom,” as the author Cynthia Barnett puts it. Two tangible factors needed to change before the umbrella could find widespread acceptance.

The first was the state of the streets. In one particularly enlightening passage in William Sangster’s book Umbrellas and Their History, John Pugh, biographer of Jonas Hanway, describes what it was like to walk the streets of London before they were universally paved. “It is not easy to convey to a person,” he writes, “a tolerable idea of their inconvenience and uncleanliness.”

He describes a multitude of shop signs extending from the buildings into the street, staggered so they would not meet, and greatly impeding sight lines. Some footpaths were so narrow they would admit only one person at a time, and even then they were partially blocked by a row of posts running edge-wise along the carriage way.

If a person were too intimidated by the dangers of walking in the carriage way, he was obliged to displace anyone on the footpath in front of him, which, when met with resistance, “made his journey truly a warfare.” Pugh elaborates on the discomforts presented to an “unfortunate female, stopped in the street on a windy day under a large old sign loaded with lead and iron in full swing over her head . . . and perhaps a torrent of rain and dirty water falling near from a projecting spout.” Add to these various obstructions–above and to either side–the fact that hooped skirts were then in fashion, and it’s no small wonder that people were reluctant to add umbrellas to the mix.

The second, and very best, explanation for early umbrella disparagement lies with the objects themselves. The cost of such articles was significant and not remotely commensurate with their quality or usefulness. Before industrialist Samuel Fox pioneered the steel frame, umbrellas were made with whalebone, and they were heavy, labor-intensive affairs. The ribs were not hinged at the stick but strung on a wire, and apt to become disordered. The whalebone was liable to crack if not dried with the utmost care. Coats of wax or oil waterproofing were not sufficient to keep the huge cotton covers from soaking through, and once the umbrella was folded up again it had to be carried under the arm, wetting one. The whole structure more closely resembled a loosely ordered bundle of twigs swaddled in heavy fabric than it did the modern-day brolly.

The umbrella has come a long way. In 1855 alone, over 300 patents were submitted for improvements to the umbrella’s design and manufacture. Add to those patents the vast improvements made to materials and technologies since 1855 and you have the brolly today: 100% waterproof, lightweight, and stashable in all but the daintiest of handbags.

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Marion Rankine is a London-based writer and bookseller. Her work has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, Overland, and For Books’ Sake, among others. This article was adapted with permission from her new book Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature (Melville House, 2017).