The first Englishman who ever carried an umbrella

These fragments come from The Umbrella and its History by William Sangster (1855). Sangster takes the reader on a whistle stop tour around the world of umbrellas and parasols, providing some intriguing descriptions of the use of the umbrella. The following snippets include his account of the umbrella’s first public outing in England by a man.

The general use of the Parasol in France and England was adopted, probably from China, about the middle of the seventeenth century. At that period, pictorial representations of it are frequently found, some of which exhibit the peculiar broad and deep canopy belonging to the large Parasol of the Chinese government officials, borne by native attendants. John Evelyn, in his Diary for the 22nd June, 1664, mentions a collection of rarities shown him by one Thompson, a Catholic priest, sent by the Jesuits of Japan and China to France. Among the curiosities were ‘fans like those our ladies use, but much larger, and with long handles, strangely carved and filled with Chinese characters,’ which is evidently a description of the Parasol.

In Coryat’s Crudities, a very rare and highly interesting work, published about a century and a half prior to the general introduction of the Umbrella into England, we find the following curious passage: ‘Also many of the Italians doe carrie other fine things of a far greater price, that will cost at least a duckate, which they commonly call in the Italian tongue Umbrellas, that is, things that minister shadow unto them, for shelter against the scorching heate of the sun. These are made of leather, something answerable to the forme of a little canopie, and hooped in the inside with divers little hoopes, that extend the Umbrella in a pretty large compasse. They are used especially by horsemen, who carry them in their handes when they ride, fastening the ende of the handle upon one of their thighs: and they imparte so long a shadow unto them, that it keepeth the heate of the sun from the upper part of the bodies.’

The Umbrella was not used by gentlemen for a long time after its merits had been recognised by the fair sex. Pursuing our quotations, we find an allusion to the Umbrella, as employed by ladies, in Gay’s Trivia:

Good housewives all the winter’s rage despise,
Defended by the ridinghood’s disguise:
Or, underneath th’ umbrella’s oily shed
Safe through the wet on clinking pattens tread.
Let Persian dames th’ umbrellas rich display,
To guard their beauties from the sunny ray:
Or sweating slaves support the shady load,
When Eastern monarchs show their state abroad.
Britons in winter only know its aid,
To guard from chilly showers the walking maid.

It is recorded in the life of that venerable philanthropist, Jonas Hanway, the friend of chimney-sweeps and sworn foe to tea, that he was the first man who ventured to dare public reproach and ridicule by carrying an Umbrella. He probably felt the benefit of the Umbrella during his travels in Persia, where they were in constant use as a protection against the sun.  It was more than probable, however, that Jonas Hanway’s neatness in dress and delicate complexion led him, on his return from abroad, to appreciate a luxury hitherto only confined to the ladies. Mr. Pugh, who wrote his life, gives the following description of his personal appearance, which may be regarded as a gem in its way:

In his dress, as far as was consistent with his ideas of health and ease, he accommodated himself to the prevailing fashion. As it was frequently necessary for him to appear in polite circles on unexpected occasions, he usually wore dress clothes with a large French bag. His hat, ornamented with a gold button, was of a size and fashion to be worn as well under the arm as on the head. When it rained, a small parapluie defended his face and wig.

Hence it was long ere the Umbrella became an article of general use, which is strikingly confirmed by an anecdote we derive from that amusing repertory of facts, Notes and Queries.  Mr. Warry, many years English Consul at Smyrna, described to a friend the envy and astonishment of his mother’s neighbours at Sawbridgeworth, in Hertfordshire, where his father had a country house, when he ran home and came back with an Umbrella he had just brought from Leghorn, to shelter them from a pelting storm which detained them in the church porch after the service on a summer Sunday. Now, as this occurred about the year 1775 or 1776, and Sawbridgeworth was so near London, it is plain that Umbrellas at that time were almost wholly unknown. Since this date, however, the Umbrella has come into general use, and in consequence, numerous improvements have been effected in it. The transition to the present portable form is due, partly to the substitution of silk and gingham for the heavy and troublesome oiled silk, which admitted of the ribs and frames being made much lighter, and, also, to the many ingenious mechanical improvements in the framework, chiefly by French and English manufacturers.

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One comment

  • January 22, 2010 - 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that the umbrella was originally a sunshade device, and therefore of minimal use in the UK. Yet we use the name which implies sunshading, rejecting the French parapluie which hints at rain shading.

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