New book uncovers the brolly’s history, across distant lands,
New book Brolliology: The ups and downs of the umbrella
Marion Rankine begins the first chapter of Brolliology, her intriguing volume about the history of the umbrella, with a description of James Smith & Sons Umbrellas, a Victorian “anachronism” that stands on London’s New Oxford Street. I have been regularly passing by this shop myself for almost two decades now, often stopping to marvel at the racks of beautiful umbrellas and parasols inside – with their elegant wooden handles and stunning silks – continually amazed that it continues to exist in a modern age of cheap, standard, disposable brollies.
James Smith & Sons Umbrellas, Rankine informs us, has been in existence for almost 200 years. It was founded in 1830, “a notable date,” Rankine explains, since it was around the time “umbrella manufacture became a commercially viable prospect”. The Victorian era was something of a heyday for umbrellas – mass production meant they were readily available like never before, and they quickly became a firm indicator of socioeconomic status, “a carefully crafted sign of high distinction, to be carried not only as a shield against the wet, but as a mark of fashion and good taste”. Every self-respecting gentleman working in the City was marked by his bowler hat and umbrella.
This, however, hadn’t always been the case in Britain – and it is the Britain, and what Rankine describes as “the British imagination”, that takes centre-stage in Brolliology, not that she’s not interested in how the umbrella or parasol has been used in and regarded by other cultures, especially since there’s a fascinating story about cross-cultural appropriation to be told.
Umbrellas, she explains, “have a long history of distinction far predating the British.” One that’s routinely associated with kingship. Take Ancient Egypt or Assyria, for example, where they were held over monarchs to protect them from the sun.
In his 1858 essay Please to Leave Your Umbrella, Charles Dickens – according to Rankine, “possibly the most avid brolliologist of literary history” – refers to a Theban image of an Ethiopian princess “travelling in a car, to which is attached an umbrella or sun-shade, bearing a strong resemblance to the chaise umbrella which Mr and Mrs Smith take out with them on their Sunday’s ride to Epping Forest”. So too in India, where the opulent nava-danda, “a seven-tiered parasol of scarlet and gold dressed in thirty-two strings of pearls, with a pure gold frame, ruby handle and diamond knob” – a brolly in a league of its own, way beyond even the artistry of James Smith and Sons – was only used by royals on special occasions. Meanwhile, in China, collapsible umbrella stays were discovered in the tomb of a warlord dating from 25 BC. Later, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), “an extraordinary detailed system of class-based umbrella etiquette was in practice,” similar to that in Japan which “dictated umbrella use amongst the nobility until the late seventeenth century”.
Given this rich international history, and in particular the umbrella/parasol’s links with Asia, Africa and other colonised countries, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that Victorian Britain did all it could to downplay these, emphasising instead the umbrella’s supposed Greek roots. Using the umbrella – as it was originally intended – as a sunshade was deemed “unusual” and looked on a little oddly:
“The English assumed a sense of moral superiority,” Rankine explains, “for ‘discovering’ the usefulness of umbrellas in the rain.”
Brolliology is a book of two halves. Rankine gives us the history of the umbrella in the first, from the object’s noble origins, through some of its more “disreputable” appearances, including the umbrella’s fall from grace in the 1930s via its association with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. As closely tied to his image as his successor Churchill’s cigar, or later still Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, when Chamberlain – umbrella always in hand – signed the Munich Agreement, sales soared, sugar umbrellas were apparently displayed in shop windows across London, and the real deal were used as props in a dance craze that swept Paris (dancers used their umbrella handles to hook their chosen partner). Shortly thereafter, however, when Europe went to war, Chamberlain, and by extension the umbrella, were both scorned.
Following what is a treasure trove of anecdotes similar to this one, the second half of the book deals with the more abstract issues at stake in this cultural history. In the course of working on this book, Rankine became somewhat obsessed with a certain kind of brolly: “rain slicked, limp and melancholy objects, with bent or broken wings, spindles showing, canopies detached and flapping. Broken battered sea birds, littering the street.” Umbrellas mislaid, lost, or abandoned, litter literature too – from E M Forster’s Howard’s End (1910), when Helen Schlegel absentmindedly picks up that belonging to the poor city clerk Leonard Bast as she leaves a London concert hall; through George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1913); and even Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika (1927). Interestingly, Rankine links these instances of neglect to Japanese yokai – supernatural and demonic beings, a specific subgroup of which is known as tsukumogami: “old and neglected household objects that, after a long period of disuse, become sentient”. One of which is an umbrella.
Traditionally shields against sun or rain, we also learn that their purpose has been taken to the extreme by both Queen Victoria, who “had a number of parasols lined with chain mail following an assassination attempt”, and more recently, French president Nicolas Sarkozy who, in 2011, had a Kevlar-coated umbrella made – costing £10,000 (Dh48,412) – for his bodyguards to carry in case it was needed. On the flipside, umbrellas have also been used as murder weapons. In 1978, the dissident Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov was injected with a minute pellet of ricin via what was surmised to be the tip of a modified umbrella, while 160-odd years earlier, a French finance minister was clubbed to death by an angry mob, umbrellas in hand.
Shot through with an opulent array of beautiful illustrations and photographs, Brolliology is a little gem of a book about what actually turns about to be a surprisingly absorbing and rich subject.