By Jim Poling
Published April 5, 2018
The first rain showers of April, scattered, brief and chilly as they were in the past week, have brought out something more than just the promise of May flowers.
Spring showers prompt us to drag from winter storage our most mundane and underrated item: the umbrella.
The rain umbrella, as commonplace and homely as a mud puddle, is a proclaimer of winter’s end. It signals hibernation for snow shovels and the appearance of summer fun brollies unfolded on patios, beaches and stuffed into golf bags.
Mundane as it is, the common umbrella has been around since just after the Stone Age and has intriguing stories to tell.
It is believed to have been invented in China in the 11th century B.C. as a parasol to shield people of high standing from the sun. Its name comes from the Latin word umbros, meaning shade or shadow.
Umbrellas appeared in ancient Greece and Rome in the first century B.C., mainly as sun shades held by the slaves of nobles. Somewhere along the way someone figured out the umbrella could be used as a shield against rain if its silk was waterproofed.
The umbrella was seen as a feminine accessory until the mid-1700s when Jonas Hanway, an English philanthropist, became the first Londoner to carry an umbrella, suffering the indignities of coachmen who hooted at him and called him a sissy. A visit to a rainy London street now confirms Hanway as a trend setter far ahead of his time.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of modifications and patents followed and brought us the collapsible umbrella, the telescopic umbrella; even an umbrella that can withstand winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour without turning inside out.
One especially notable modification was the $17,000 Kevlar umbrella carried by the bodyguards of former French president Nicholas Sarkozy. It would not stop bullets but would reduce their impact and provide some protection from stones or other materials thrown at Sarkozy from above.
That umbrella will not afford him much protection in prison, where he is headed if convicted of corruption and influence peddling charges laid against him recently.
Security agencies often used the umbrella in their secret work. They fitted umbrella shafts with retractable blades and even modified them to fire flechettes, steel-point projectiles.
Back in 1978 Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov was assassinated with a poison-tipped umbrella. Markov was standing on London’s Waterloo Bridge when someone walked by him, stabbing him in the thigh with a ricin-laced umbrella tip. It is widely believed the KGB was behind it.
When the Bulgarian government collapsed in 1989 umbrellas modified to fire little darts were found in one government building.
Most of the world’s umbrellas now are made in China. One town, Songxia, is known as the Umbrella City because it is reported to have 1,200 umbrella manufacturers with 40,000 participating workers, some of who work in factories while others work at home.
The Songxia Umbrella Industrial Park is said to have the capacity to produce 500 million umbrellas.
Umbrellas became symbols of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement in 2014. Protesters carried them not just as a symbol but as protection against tear gas and pepper spray used by police.
There don’t appear to be any accurate or believable figures on how many umbrellas are sold worldwide each year. The number has to be in the hundreds of millions. U.S. statistics show that Americans buy 33 million umbrellas annually.
Sales flourish because so many people misplace their umbrellas. Last year 10,000 left behind umbrellas were turned in to the London, England public transit lost and found. Only a small per cent were reclaimed.
The umbrella is ubiquitous in song and movies. Who could forget Mary Poppins or Singin’ in the Rain?
The umbrella song that no one remembers, but the one I can never forget, is the famous pre-Second World War tune “The Umbrella Man.”
It was always high on my mother’s play list when she was in a singing mood. In fact, I am told she belted it out to a night club crowd in an impromptu performance after a few drinks. The nightclub patrons apparently went wild.
“Toodle – luma luma
Toodle – luma luma
Toodle – oh lay
Any umbrellas, any umbrellas
To mend today?”