Once upon a time most people used an umbrella. People took them along if they went out just in case of a shower. Anyone who worked in an office would often carry a lengthy one – the image of bowler hatted gents striding along with an umbrella even on a sunny day- is an enduring one. It is after all one of the uncontradictable facts that it’s frequently raining in Britain whatever the time of year and when that happens British people used to do one thing. They would produce an umbrella from their pocket or bag or they’d just be carrying one. The high street was packed with umbrellas jostling for position as they are inevitably wider than the average person. The etiquette was that you would get out of the way for every other person and they would reciprocate. Now though if it starts to pour umbrellas are rarely to be seen even if it’s the middle of winter. Even if it’s not windy. So is the humble umbrella disappearing into extinction and if so why, what can be done or indeed if anything does need to be done?
It's not like umbrellas
are a recent, modern invention with the first examples of something similar said
to date back as far as 3500BC when people stretched animal skins over bamboo
sticks. Let’s not ask where they got the animal skins from, eh. Admittedly
these were designed more for protection from the Sun than the rain. The name
umbrella includes the Latin word Umbra meaning shadow. The more familiar usage developed in the sixteenth century when oil and wax covers were introduced.
Initially the handle was made of whale bone but this has changed over time to wood,
steel, aluminium and nowadays mostly fibreglass. By the following century it had
become popular though initially only with women. It is mostly women
who still use them because they are more sensible. Men started using them more
from the eighteenth century until they decided it was uncool to be seen with one and they'd rather just get soaked.
I’m not sure what
people did about storing umbrellas prior to the moment in 1701 when Jean Marius
invented a foldable version. Even better one Hans Haupt created a telescopic umbrella.
By the mid twentieth century there was an abundance of different styles
including pocket sized ones, transparent ones (based on the notion that you can’t
always see where you’re going with a regular one) and a cornucopia of cover designs.
The umbrella perhaps reached an apex in the Sixties with hippy inspired designs
and also courtesy of John Steed, the dapper Avengers frontman, who used
his umbrella both to keep off the rain and slam into attackers.
It was probably young
people who first decided to abandon umbrellas. And I suppose if you’re hanging
around on the street corner with the gang swapping street talk and IRL Twitch
streaming then the last thing you want is an umbrella cramping your style. It also
seems the case that modern umbrellas, like most modern things, are flimsier
than their ancestors because the makers don’t want them to last too long.
Manufacturers have tried
all sorts to try and keep them relevant making ever smaller models that fold
into the size of a pea (well nearly) but will they ever fold back as well after
the first time you open them? They will not. So it is that the umbrella has
followed physical media, checkout staff, visible socks and calculators into
Some people don’t even
bother with a hood and allow themselves to get completely wet. even though we used to be told that
this would cause you to catch a cold. As we now know too well colds are viruses
spread in the air regardless of the weather so unless you have some underlying
deficiency getting soaked will not give you a cold. You will just look soggy. However
even if it’s not going to give you flu getting soaking wet is uncomfortable especially
if you have no opportunity to change your clothes for hours afterwards. Despite
their unpopularity amongst younger people and lack of cool, umbrellas remain
embedded in our culture as Rhianna reminded us back in 2008. And where would
Mary Poppins be without her umbrella?
A sturdy umbrella could once last for years yet now a couple of encounters with high winds and the whole thing blows inside out which as any umbrellerac will tell you weakens the structure considerably. Somehow they don’t fold back together properly. We used to get more regular rain but now it
seems nearly every time its accompanied by an amusingly named storm complete
with extra strong winds which are anathema to an umbrella. I reckon a sturdy
umbrella will take being blown inside out about twenty times before it starts
to become permanently damaged. Spokes come out, the thing won’t fold back
properly and then one day it won’t close at all. Hence why you often see
abandoned umbrellas littering the pavements. Drying them is another bugbear as
they have to be left opened out taking quite a space. A closed umbrella will
take days to dry. Or perhaps people just find it a faff to have to carry
Instead people just get
wet and seem quite happy to do so. Another theory that running out of the rain
will keep you drier has also been disproved. Running means the rain hits you
harder and so even if you get there quicker it makes no difference to the amount
of rain that will fall on you. This is
why you see some people strolling in a shower as if nothing is falling on their
Umbrellas have one of the widest price ranges of any product. I once bought a cheap one from a street stall in London for about £3 but you can if you wish purchase a Dior umbrella for £1,150. If the wind gusts in your direction though it could end up as useless as that three quid one which by the way had blown inside out before the end of the day. Designers have tried to put their stamp on the product so you don’t need to buy just a black version or one comprising a single colour or even a conventional look. Any design can go onto the canopy or handle and people have also experimented with the operational parts as well.
Because there is a day
for everything there is of course an Umbrella Day on 10 February each year
which personally I’ve never seen any evidence of though perhaps its overshadowed
by National Cream Cheese Brownie Day and Meat Free Day which share the
date. This seems to be mostly a US
phenomenon but what exactly are you supposed to do on that day? Well, you are
urged to watch a film that heavily features an umbrella like Mary Poppins,
Batman Returns, Singin’ in the Rain, Blade Runner or…well
there must be others. There’s the tv show The Umbrella Academy and as
mentioned earlier The Avengers. You can drink cocktails with umbrellas in them
though these tiny examples are useless in the rain unless you’re a snail. You
can buy anther umbrella in case of misfortune with the one you have. As you can
see as a celebration it lacks a signature event like an Umbrella Parade. Maybe
If you wait long enough cyclical culture brings things back so perhaps in the future umbrellas will return to the forefront of society and once again seem ubiquitous. In the meantime enjoy getting wet.
Why has moondust been
found in a Bronze Age tomb? Where do the giant flying swordfish come from? Who
is the three hundred year old cardinal? As he grieves a family loss, fifteen
year old Tom Allenby is drawn into a race to stop an ancient power being released.
The epic sixth Heart of the World novel The Lonely Sea available now in Kindle
ebook or print format
For more on my other books there’s a website www.johnconnorswriter.com