During the late 18th century, London was full of strange characters who attracted attention to themselves for one reason or another, but perhaps none so much as Jonas Hanway. A former merchant who spent several years working in Persia and Russia, Hanway was known for his eccentricities as well as his near mythic travel stories. He was wholeheartedly dedicated to various philanthropic activities, including governing an asylum for women and the poor, and writing tracts about problems within the British prison system. Hanway was most certainly in the public eye, but it was not his social work or the circles in which he ran that fascinated the average Londoner. He is remembered over 200 years later for what he carried over his head, that common and most benign accessory, the umbrella.
Hanway’s umbrella was, of course, a take on the parasol, an object that had done its own share of traveling. Since 2400 B.C.E., it had been carried over the heads of the nobility throughout the Middle and Far East. In this part of the world, the man of respectable station, wanting to distinguish himself from the masses, kept his skin fair by shielding himself from the sun. The parasol had entered the Middle Ages, held high over the heads of Catholic popes and bishops, serving as a sort of flag or standard. As the Church’s influence waned, the ombrello or “little shadow” had become a fashionable article among Italian women before making its way north.
By the turn of the 18th century, waterproof materials were added, making it useful for protection from the rain. In 1709, the Frenchman Jean Marius, a master purse maker with an eye for trends, designed a folding version which was lightweight and chic. Soon every sophisticated Parisian was seen carrying a parapluie. These pricey accessories complemented their attire and kept their coiffed heads dry — no proper lady would be caught in public without one.
And apparently no English gentleman would be caught in public with one. For nearly 30 years, Jonas Hanway stubbornly weathered the ridicule of the London public, promoting the umbrella as an incredibly useful tool that would democratize the city streets (and put a serious dent in the coach industry). His persistence paid off: Savvy London shops began to carry their own umbrellas, much to the disappointment of the city taxi coaches. By the early 19th century this handy tool had evolved somewhat and was now made with leather or oiled canvas. And the umbrella could be used to protect more than one’s wig from the rain: the Duke of Wellington — the victor of Waterloo — was said to have one weighing ten pounds with a concealed a dagger in its handle. Heavy, yes, but what better tool to fend off potential attackers?
As most of the weight was attributed to its whalebone ribbing, manufacturers sought out lighter materials and finishes. Steel was a godsend, making it easier to fashion thinner support ribs. U-shaped steel rods came in the 1850s. Ribs and stretchers became increasingly lighter and stronger. (Steel remains the metal of choice for umbrella ribs and frames, but manufacturers continue to experiment with fiberglass and carbon fiber shafts to reduce weight.) Heavy oiled leather and canvas have long been replaced. In a well-made umbrella, the canopy is now made of 6–12 hand-sewn panels of nylon with a rating of 190T (threads per inch) that are coated with acrylic underneath and a scotch guard application on top.
Though new innovations in construction have created a lighter umbrella, the majority of modern versions are of poor quality (as can be seen by the number of twisted wrecks left laying in gutters after a heavy storm). The better models are worth the extra cost, as they will often last a lifetime and do what they were intended to do — protect our heads from the elements.