This edited article about the umbrella originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 692 published on 19 April 1975.
It is not pleasant to be jeered at for nearly thirty years, but that was the unhappy fate of Jonas Hanway. This good-hearted man, whose hobbies included foreign travel, helping poor children and protecting young chimney sweeps, earned his hoots of derision by daring to use an umbrella on the streets of London when it rained; indeed, he was the first man to carry one regularly, from the 1750s onwards.
And what sort of people scoffed at this sensible man? Some were over-religious folk, who loudly suggested that he was defying the Lord’s gift of rain, which was there to make everyone wet, but most of those who jeered at Jonas were coachmen, afraid that he would start a fashion and so lose them trade. When finally another brave spirit, John MacDonald, began carrying an umbrella, he, too, was derided with cries of “Frenchman, Frenchman, why don’t you call a coach?” Whether these shouts were because the French were known to use umbrellas occasionally, or because manly British mobs considered that Frenchmen were sissies, is uncertain.
By the time Jonas died in 1786, umbrellas were here to stay. But they had been used for many centuries elsewhere, and, in fact, there were a few around in Britain before Jonas began his thirty-year pilgrimage.
The first umbrellas were sunshades and there are ancient Egyptian carvings showing Pharaohs sitting under ceremonial brollies. The Chinese had them, too, while the King of Burma was, amongst other things, the Lord of the Great Parasol. He sported a white sunshade, while his minions had to make do with ones of different colours.
The ancient Greeks used them, with their slaves shading their mistresses from the sun, and the Romans did likewise; they may have even used the sunshades to keep off the rain. So what were once simply symbols of royalty and power became useful objects as well.
The first time we know for certain that an umbrella was used to keep out the rain, as opposed to the sun, was in 1637. An account book of Louis XIII’s possessions distinguished between eleven sunshades of various colours made of taffeta, and three “umbrellas of oiled cloth, trimmed underneath with gold and silver lace.” It is assumed that these were for the use of the Queen and the ladies of the court.
By 1715, Frenchmen were using umbrellas as well, and including a folding pocket umbrella with a collapsible shaft. Some British women had copied their French counterparts by this time, but no men had ventured to carry them except on rare occasions. Fashionable coffee houses kept umbrellas handy to shelter both ladies and gentlemen on the way to their carriages, but no gentleman would have dreamed of carrying one. Some churches had a communal umbrella, and Cambridge University stocked a single one in the 1730s which had to be booked in advance.
But how did one know it would rain?
Which brings us back to Hanway, who first “defended his face and wig” with an umbrella after returning from a seven-year trip to Russia and Persia. In the latter country, he had seen the ceremonial sunshade in action, liked what he saw, and decided on his course of action, little imagining that years of aggravation lay ahead of him. He is often claimed as the first Briton to use an umbrella, and sometimes to have invented it, but, as we have seen, he was not.
Most early umbrellas were made of oily canvas and had bulging whalebone ribs. They were not things of beauty and became known as gamps after the drunken nurse. Sarah Gamp, in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, who used one. But from the late 1820s, first in France, then in Britain, slim, smart silk ones appeared in increasing numbers. As the weight of them went down, however, so they became less strong, but finally a Yorkshireman named Samuel Fox solved the problem in 1852. He was the first to make a success of the fluted (grooved) steel rib for umbrellas, and since his time, they have changed very little.
But there has been one important change, for now we have the see-through umbrella, with improved vision and less chance of a crash, especially on those torrential days when users walk about with their heads as hidden as a man in a gun turret with the hatch battened down.
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