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The Flat Cap on ... Umbrellas

This morning The Flat Cap went to his fridge, only to realise that he had run out of milk to put in his tea. This meant a trip to the shops, but unfortunately it was raining, and not just drizzle but really heavy rain. Undaunted The Flat Cap put on his coat, a stout pair of shoes and reached for his umbrella to protect him from the elements. It was at this point that he began to wonder about the origins of the humble umbrella and so he decided to find out a little bit more about its history.

Up until the mid eighteenth century umbrellas were considered rather effeminate. And if you were a man carrying an umbrella it left you open to ridicule. Some two hundred and fifty years before England football manager Steve McClaren became known as “the wally with the brolly” there was an equally unapologetic English gentleman who didn’t much care what people thought of him. His name was Jonas Hanway. Having been on a trip to France Hanway bought himself an umbrella and returned home with it. Whenever it rained in London (which was often) Hanway would walk around under the shelter of his umbrella. This provoked insults from both fellow passersby and hansom cab drivers. The latter, fearful that umbrella usage might catch on and thus deprive them of passengers seeking a refuge from the elements, would routinely pelt Hanway with rubbish. On one occasion a coach driver tried to run him over. Fortunately for today’s umbrella users Hanway stood his ground and gave the cockney cabbie a sound thrashing with his brolly. News of Jonas’s exploits soon spread and men all over England became emboldened by Hanway’s heroics. By his death in 1786 umbrella usage was on the rise and no longer considered quite so “girly”. A less well known fact about Hanway was that he would routinely wear several pairs of socks to keep his feet dry. Had this information been publicised more widely sock manufacture might have received the same boost as umbrella making.

The first recorded written use of an umbrella occurred in China when the Emperor Wang Mang had one fitted to his ceremonial carriage. This was in AD21. When Wang Mang wasn’t doing ceremonial stuff, like opening village fetes, attending international football matches, or naming ships, he would use the carriage to nip down to the shops on rainy days. Sometimes he would take his grandchildren to school in the carriage so that they didn’t arrive wet for classes. Mrs. Mang would also use the carriage on trips to and from the local hairdressers. Even today China remains the world’s biggest manufacturer of umbrellas. One Chinese city, Shangyu, has over a thousand umbrella factories.

Other ancient civilizations like Egypt, Greece, Rome and India have plenty of references to the umbrella. However as you get a lot of decent weather in those countries it’s highly likely much of the hype and history, depictions and designs actually relate to parasols. People book their summer holidays to the above countries because of the sunshine. Ok, you might get the odd shower but in general you don’t need an umbrella or anorak in July and August. Live where The Flat Cap does and you could be using an umbrella pretty much any day of the year. English summers are very hit and miss, and it’s big news if the temperature gets above 30 degrees Celsius. It’s also the cue for the tabloid press to publish pictures of scantily clad young women on the beaches of Morecambe or Margate under headlines like, “Hotter than Hyderabad” or “Sunnier than Seville”. Then two days later it’s pouring down again, and you need plenty of socks to keep your feet dry.

The umbrella is a pretty simple design, and yet the one we know today has more than 3,000 active patents. The biggest umbrellas are reserved for golf professionals or high ranking church officials like bishops and the pope; both of whom have someone to hold it over them whilst they make that match winning putt. Pope Paul VI was a keen golfer and this probably explains why he was the first pontiff to travel to the United States. Umbrellas have also been used as both a weapon of attack, and as a means of defence. In 1978 Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed with the poison tip of a specially adapted umbrella. French president Nicolas Sarkozy owns a £10,000 umbrella to protect him from attackers, and in 2014 Hong Kong protestors used umbrellas to shield themselves from the tear gas and pepper spray being fired at them by riot police. Umbrellas can also protect you from hailstones, and nobody wants to be on the end of those either.

Once The Flat Cap had got to his local corner shop and paid for his milk he began chatting to Mavis, the lady who had served him. Mavis said she owned four umbrellas and confessed to being a bit of an umbrella geek. She volunteered the following umbrella related facts:

  • National Umbrella Day is held annually on the tenth of February

  • The word umbrella derives from the Latin word “umbros” meaning shadow or shade

  • In 2011 Norwich model maker Angus McBride built a scale model of the Sydney Opera House using recycled umbrellas that he salvaged from skips and his local refuse tip

  • More than a billion umbrellas are sold worldwide every year

  • Umbrella manufacturers waterproof the canopies with Teflon

  • Gene Kelly used fifty one umbrellas during the making of the 1952 film Singing in the Rain

  • During the nineteenth century it was fashionable to hold umbrellas mid shaft with the handle pointing towards the ground. Like most daft fashions (tank tops, platform shoes, shell suits, mullets etc.) the practice waned

  • Eccentric Seattle resident Robert W. Patten was known as The Umbrella Man after claiming he devised the umbrella hat whilst prospecting in Mexico

  • There is an umbrella bird and it lives in the rainforests of Central and South America

  • The average price of an umbrella is £12.99

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