This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 20, 2014.
The technology of umbrellas is older than we perhaps think. According to the umbrella division of the Oakthrift Corporation in the U.K., umbrellas can be found in art dating back to the 11th century B.C. in China and may date earlier in the Middle East. These early models most likely didn’t close – Oakthrift- which surely has a historian on staff to ponder such questions – theorizes that they took their design from spreading tree branches. In any case, we might more correctly call them parasols, since they were used to keep the sun off rather than the rain. These tended to be the accessory of choice for ladies, who wished to keep their skin fair and the elite, who didn’t like to sweat under the hot sun.
The Puritans in both Britain and America didn’t think much of parasols. They were frivolous things and far too showy for God’s elect. The real popularization of the parasol and umbrella came about after John Beale patented his ribbed umbrella design in 1786. The nineteenth century saw a huge rise in popularity in use. Most women owned at least a few parasols for special occasions. There are dozens in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society, along with that other ladies’ accessory of the day – the hand fan. Given that these were the corset-and-three-petticoat days, one would need any help possible to stay cool during American summers.
As the parasol grew in popularity, the umbrella began to unfurl as the masculine version. Not frivolous, it was designed to shed rain. Umbrellas kept one dry, comfortable and healthy – so much more than just portable sun block. Useful, but a bit delicate, Henry Shute wrote of them (in his boys’ dialect) in the novel Bright and Fair;“Sunday. Rainy and windy. Had to go to chirch. The only fun I had was to see peeples umbrellas blow rongside out and to hear them sware.” Umbrellas were made by skilled craftsmen and could be repaired by travelling umbrella peddlers. As the 20th century loomed, independent umbrella makers (and their parasol counterparts, milliners – who also designed and made hats), gave way to industrialization.
In 1911, the Exeter News-Letter announced, “a new promising industry, the Ball joint umbrella company, now quartered with the Gale Shoe Company at Portsmouth. Mr. Chester H. Smith will be the manager and at the start from 25 to 30, mostly girls, will be employed.” The business quickly changed its name to the Exeter Umbrella Company and took up residence on Water Street where, according to advertising, it was the, “sole manufacturers under basic patents.”
Within weeks, the business opened and the News-Letter was able to gush: “The beginning of work was made at the Exeter Umbrella Company’s shop last week, when the first of the equipment was received. The present week additions to the machinery have been arriving, although some shafting has still to be hung and the greater part of the machinery yet to come. A small force of girls is now engaged on hurry orders and the old plant at Portsmouth is also turning out orders and will so continue until the Exeter shop is completely equipped. By September first it is hoped to have the Exeter shop in shape to handle all the business, with a force of at least 20 hands employed.”
What happened to the seemingly thriving business? Perhaps the industrialization of umbrella manufacturing destroyed the marketability of small shops like Smith’s. The rise of the department store in the 1920s edged out the specialty shops and as umbrellas became cheaper to manufacture, they became cheaper to purchase and replace. Today’s umbrellas are both inexpensive and nearly disposable. However, they can still be used as weapons. In 2005, Brian Hahn, a mathematics professor in Cape Town, South Africa was beaten to death by a deranged student – with an umbrella.
Image: The Exeter Umbrella Company had a workforce of 20-30 employees (mostly young women) who produced their wares in a shop on Water Street from 1911 – 1918.