When It Rains Trash On The Umbrella

Imagine the sight of the merchant and travel writer Jonas Hanway, who amused Londoners. After many years in Lisbon, Russia and Persia, he had brought back a novel piece of equipment after a stay in France. A ‘Parapluie’, which, in the style of the Far Eastern ‘Parasol’, was not intended to protect against the sun but against rain.

The Parisian merchant Jean Marius was a renowned purse maker and had noticed how rainy days ruined the elaborately designed wigs of his aristocratic customers. Hairdressers and wigmakers were considered artists in those days and the prices one had to pay for a hairstyle were correspondingly high. Although the first umbrellas already existed, they were so bulky and heavy that hardly anyone wanted to or could use them. Marius improved the construction and created a lightweight version in 1709. This umbrella, weighing less than a kilogram, could be folded and divided into three parts and thus be carried comfortably. As a luxury goods manufacturer who knew the tastes of his Parisian customers, Marius knew that only an elegant looking Parapluie would appeal. He chose dignified materials, processed them artfully and finely so that they matched the current fashion of his clientele. This equipment was also then the latest fashion in Paris, with which Jean Marius himself was able to win the Sun King Louis XIV as a prominent customer.

The French history of origin and the enthusiasm of the French may explain why Jonas Hanway was met with resistance by Londoners when he first brought the souvenir from Paris around 1750. They made fun of him. It didn’t matter to the indignant Londoners that Hanway didn’t use his parapluie out of pure vanity, but to protect his wig and his health. It also helped him that he was an eccentric anyway and cared a bit about the mockery and derision of his fellow countrymen. Even when they repeatedly used the worst possible insult to the British, namely ‘Frenchman’, he went his way with his umbrella. And ‘to be French’ meant nothing more than a kind of ‘wimp’ and ‘hedonist’ in the 18th century.

Likewise, the umbrella stood for some moralists of his time as a sign that the wearer of such an umbrella was simply vulgar. Either one could afford a carriage or a palanquin and stay dry, or one stood by one’s poverty, wore one’s coat and got soaked. Where would we be in this world view if someone could not afford a carriage but still remained dry in the rain?

The greatest resistance to this French and therefore automatically ‘un-British’ equipment came from the coachmen. If you wanted to get around London without getting wet, the only option was a two-wheeled hired coach or a sedan chair. And the coachmen and porters saw their business threatened, which was especially attractive in damp weather. They didn’t want to have their income contested that easily. Whenever they looked at Hanway with his umbrella, they showered him with insults and even trash. A coachman even tried to run him over and Hanway gave him a beating with the versatile Parapluie.

Jonas Hanway (1712 – 1786) in the London rain with Parapluie.
Illustration by Richard Caton Woodville (1825 – 1855)

Why the umbrella met with rejection in Great Britain of all places, where one might expect that such an invention would have to be welcomed with open arms due to the climate, is difficult to understand today. Nothing looks more British to us today than a gentleman with a melon and an umbrella under his arm. Any actor who slips a beret and a baguette under his arm is immediately recognized as French. If he puts on a melon and puts an umbrella under his arm, he is British. These stereotypes are so entrenched for us that we don’t even think about them anymore. But in the 18th century the world looked different.

Forms of parasol were already known at least two thousand years ago in China, in ancient Egypt, among the Greeks and Romans, and also in the Aztec Empire, to protect against the sun. Especially noble women used it to preserve their white skin. As a Briton with the self-conception of (soon) dominating a large part of the globe, weather was a component that made the ‘real’ English and Scots stronger. The insularity and the weather shaped the body and the mind and led to the fact that Britons were robust, independent and simply different from other peoples. The use of an umbrella threatened this development of character and body.

The umbrella sceptics had even more comprehensive reasons at hand. Surrounded by wind and weather, the natural seemed natural. All efforts to keep them away from the body and to isolate themselves by creating and putting on wind and weatherproof clothing left out the ‘air’, and that seemed unnatural. Even nurses in hospitals refused to pump fresh air into patients’ rooms through ventilators because controlling air was considered blasphemous. One stated that she “prefers the almighty air, not the artificial air”. Attentive observers immediately recalled the modern resistance of conservative fanatics in the USA who rejected protective masks during the Corona crisis on the grounds that the “God-given respiratory system” should not be obstructed.

Not only in rainy Britain the Parapluie met with rejection. While in London the reasons were more of a business nature and moreover due to the enmity with the French, which was strongly anchored in the English self-image, in other countries it fell more under the categories of ‘status’ and ‘power’. While Louis XIV had no problem with his court and his subjects making use of the device, things were quite different in Persia: the same Jonas Hanway had seen a Persian prince passing by in an elaborate procession, protected from the sun with a parasol. Hanway, who was later to become a philanthropist back in London – despite all the negative experiences with his fellow human beings – early on saw in this an opportunity to do good to the people in Persia and thus to do business on the side. He had a reduced form of the parasol made and distributed to the people. With a slightly different outcome than he had hoped for. In the Persian Empire a parasol was a sign of royal status and power, and that now every person of no status should also possess such a thing was tantamount to an insult to majesty. Hanway had miscalculated so much that he had to leave Persia hastily.

Even today an umbrella can still cause political uproar. This is how the conservative Pundits in the USA got upset when US President Barack Obama had umbrellas held by marines for himself and his guest of state, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during an outdoor speech. This had contradicted the uniform protocol of the marines, who are not allowed to use an umbrella when in uniform. Interestingly, women in uniform are excluded. The uniform protocols of almost all armies in the world reflect a still valid understanding of masculinity, and this implicitly suggests that umbrellas are unmanly. Or French, as Jonas Hanway had to learn in 1750. And let us disregard the fact that umbrellas are used by agents again and again. Not to protect themselves from rain, but to administer a poisonous mixture to an enemy through the tip of the umbrella without being recognized. But that’s another story.

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