Crusoe's Umbrella

Robinson Crusoe

Color-tinted illustration of a ragged man looking for ships on the ocean

One of the most famous umbrellas in literature is the one made by Robinson Crusoe, the fictional castaway invented by Daniel Defoe. Crusoe described the making of it:

I spent a great deal of time and pains to make an umbrella. I was indeed in great want of one, and had a great mind to make one. I had seen them made in the Brazils, where they are very useful in the great heats which are there, and I felt the heats every jot as great here, and greater too, being nearer the equinox; besides, as I was obliged to be much abroad, it was a most useful thing to me, as well for the rains as for the heats. I took a world of pains at it, and it was a great while before I could make anything likely to hold; nay, after I thought I had hit the way, I spoiled two or three before I made one to my mind. But at last I made one that answered indifferently well; the main difficulty I found was to make it to let down. I could make it spread, but if it did not let down too, and draw in, it would not be portable for me any way but just over my head, which would not do. However, at last, as I said, I made one to answer. I covered it with skins, the hair upwards, so that it cast off the rain like a pent-house, and kept off the sun so effectually that I could walk out in the hottest of the weather with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest, and when I had no need of it, I could close it, and carry it under my arm.1

With the manufacture of his umbrella, Defoe's fictional character identifies himself as a gentleman in his own realm. The passage above earned the early 18th-century English umbrella the nickname, "Robinson." Note that Crusoe wished to carry it under his arm, like a proper gentleman.

1. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, as Related by Himself (1719-1722; reprint, with illustrations by Walter Paget [1863-1935]; Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1908), 87. Defoe's novel was loosely based on the experiences of the Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who spent the years 1704-1709 in self-imposed solitary residence on an uninhabited island west of Valparaiso, Chile.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities