Come Rain or Shine
"Boy with umbrella in the wind"
William Henry Hunt (1790-1864), British
Courtald Insitue Gallery, London
The most pitifully helpless figure on a rainy day was the unwary person whose umbrella the wind had turned inside out.
Historically, the engineering and construction of an umbrella faced three related challenges from the start. One was to make the contraption sturdy enough to resist damage by wind; another was to make it easily collapsible for carrying before and after use;1 the last but certainly not the least was to make it waterproof.
The more or less dome-shaped outline of a typical umbrella represented the most practical solution to the first problem. A cover consisting of a number of segments of the parabola was stitched together and stretched over strong, flexible ribs that were either attached to a ring around the top, or "notch," of a wooden handle, or else secured to the notch with hinges. The ribs were forced outward and upward at their centers by stretchers made of wood or cane. The opposite ends of the stretchers rode up and down the handle on a sliding ring. As a result, the ribs were bent upward and outward, and the umbrella assumed its parabolic shape resembling a parachute of which, incidentally, the umbrella was the direct forerunner.2
The opening and closing of the cover was the focus of the most imaginative craftsmen, who vied with one another to produce a variety of mechanisms involving springs, strings, wires, pivots, hinges, slides and catches. For most of the eighteenth century, umbrella ribs were made of baleen ("whale bone"), which tended to lose its elasticity when thoroughly soaked, and cracked and broke if not properly dried. Later, ribs and stretchers were fashioned out of brass or iron.3
Umbrella covers were usually made of cotton, canvas, gingham, or silk. Oil or wax was applied to repel rain, but of course warm sunlight would quickly spoil the benefit, leaving a consequence that was once parodied with sieves balanced on broomsticks by the neighbors of a hapless woman in a certain Connecticut town. Besides, oiled or waxed umbrellas carried under the arm or over the shoulder in the accepted fashion, soon ruined the owner's clothing. One solution was to affix a metal tip on the upper end of the handle so the umbrella could be used as a walking stick. Another alternative was the compact umbrella that folded to pocket size, which often confounded one's effort to unfurl it in time, and defied a post-shower need to re-fold it. Leather was also used as a covering, but its weight, considerably multiplied when wet, was a disadvantage. Cloth woven of alpaca wool, imported from South America, was naturally water repellent and lightweight, but very expensive. Green evidently was the favored color for umbrellas during the latter part of the 18th century.
A display of old umbrellas at the Paris Exposition of 1849 suggested that a typical umbrella of the 1780s had ribs 28-1/4 inches in length and weighed a total of one pound, 8-1/2 ounces. On the other hand, at least one model was large and heavy enough to serve as a murder weapon in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1815.4
1. An umbrella is as much a liability today in the city of Great Falls, Montana, as it would have been in the same neighborhood in 1805, because of the gusty winds that often accompany rainstorms there. Similarly, anyone daring to carry an umbrella in Astoria, Oregon, only five miles from the site of the expedition's Fort Clatsop, is presumed to be a tourist.
2. The first parachute, actually an oversized umbrella 23 feet in diameter, was tested in England in 1797. The man barely survived, but his niece subsequently made several successful descents. William Sangster, Umbrellas and Their History, http://david.barberi.com/papers/history.of.umbrellas/, Chapter 4.
3. T. S. Crawford, A History of the Umbrella (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1978).
4. "Deaths," North American Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (July, 1815), 296.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities