Unfurl your umbrella | Sunday Observer

Unfurl your umbrella

I think that folk should carry
bright umbrellas in the rain,
To smile into the sullen sky and
make it glad again.
– Margaret E. Sangster

When the late and noble statesman, Neville Chamberlain was about to depart from the fatal Munich Conference, Herr Hitler told him, “Mr Chamberlain, vud you be so kind as to gift me your umbrella for a keepsake?”

“No, no,” said Chamberlain, “I can’t do that.”

“But, Mr Chamberlain, it vud mean so much to me. I request it of you. Please!”

“I’m sorry I can’t oblige you,” said Chamberlain.

Hitler flew into a rage. “I insist!” he screamed, stamping on the Prime Minister’s foot.

“No,” said Chamberlain firmly. “It’s impossible. You see – the umbrella is mine.”

Because of the intermittent rains everybody seems to be carrying umbrellas of various colours and sizes. Women carry folding umbrellas while bhikkus are with big yellow or black umbrellas with curved handles. Some people carry umbrellas whether it rains or not. But those who carry umbrellas may not know who invented them. Uncertainty surrounds the question that has obsessed historians for many centuries. There are, of course, references to Egyptian nobles walking under parasols borne by slaves in 1200 B.C.

According to Chinese legend, the umbrella was invented by the wife of a carpenter, known as Lou-pan, who boasted that she could make portable roofs. History tells us that a Chinese emperor carried an umbrella with four storeys which looked like a pagoda. Not to be outdone, a Siamese king used an umbrella of seven storeys.

Ancient Romans used the umbrella mainly to protect themselves from the Mediterranean sun. In India the umbrella was associated with the gods of fertility and harvest, death and rebirth. The Hindu God Vishnu brought a rain-giving umbrella from hell. When Indian princes died their umbrellas were either buried or cremated with them.

Colourful umbrellas

King Louis XIII in France had about 11 different colourful umbrellas. Three of them had been decorated with gold and silver lace. In the 18th century, a company in Paris used to rent out parasols. Gignese, a hillside village in Italy, was known as a “Region of Umbrellas.” Many umbrella makers flocked to the village to sell their products. Sometime before World War II broke out, Gignese started selling a special brand of umbrellas known as “Museodell’ombrello e del parasole.”

In 1938, the museum authorities asked the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain whether he was willing to donate his world-famous umbrella. It was the umbrella Hitler wanted from him. At the time the umbrella came to be called ‘Chamberlain’. However, Chamberlain did not wish to part with his umbrella. When a new museum was put up in 1969, all the dignitaries who were invited for the opening ceremony were under umbrellas.

The English word ‘umbrella’ is derived from the Italian ‘Ombrello,’ an offshoot of ‘umbra,’ Latin for ‘shade’ or ‘shadow.’ Jonas Hanway (1712-’86) is credited with introducing the umbrella to England for everyday use. Hanway’s memorial in Westminster Abbey pays tribute to his work for foundlings and prostitutes, but not his pioneering efforts to introduce the umbrella.

‘Stick in petticoat’

When Hanway was carrying an umbrella, people jeered at him, some youngsters threw stones and coachmen seeing their livelihood threatened eyed him balefully. At the beginning most Englishmen were reluctant to carry an umbrella because small boys called it a ‘stick in petticoat.’

With the dawn of the 19th century, companies began to produce umbrellas on a large scale. Umbrellas of different sizes and colours were manufactured. In addition, the companies made automatic opening umbrellas which had a ready market. British soldiers carried umbrellas even to the battlefront. The Duke of Wellington who disapproved the practice carried an umbrella with a concealed sword!

At the Battle of Waterloo, a French marshal was surprised to see English officers on horseback carrying umbrellas. However, when the battle began they folded their umbrellas and fought valiantly to defeat the enemy.

Mass scale production

England started manufacturing umbrellas on a mass scale using cheap raw materials coming from its colonies. In ‘The Pickwick Papers’ Charles Dickens says voters of Eatanswill were bribed with expensive gifts to their wives of green parasols. Dickens also introduced Mrs Gamp, in ‘The Life and Adventures of Marin Chuzzlewit,’ who kept her elaborate umbrella beside the fireplace.

According to superstition, if you drop an umbrella, it is bad luck to pick it up yourself. If you open an umbrella on a nice sunny day, it would bring rain. Your umbrella should not rest on beds or opened indoors. If opened indoors the action may be construed as a direct insult to the sun which is revered in many countries. If a single woman drops an umbrella, she will never get married.

If you walk with an umbrella on a rainy day, it does not necessarily attract lightning. However, if there is no option, get as low as possible and avoid being near a ‘path of least resistance.’

Among other uses, the umbrella comes handy for lovers sitting on the Galle Face Green to hide their faces. Some bold women who do not tolerate sexual advances from males use their umbrellas to beat them.

There is a wealth of poetry written on the umbrella. Of them I found Jaymie Gerard’s little poem quite fascinating:

Under my umbrella
Under my umbrella
I like to feel the drops
Of rain – its happy tapping
Of pitter – patter plops
Under my umbrella
I like to feel a dash
Of water as it hits the ground
And rises with a splash
Under my umbrella
I like to stay all day
And enjoy the rainy weather
As it falls down from the sky

The umbrella is a clear example of how a simple thing such as an umbrella can tell a powerful story about how people have changed throughout time and the progression our race has made and is making currently towards the values we assume as most important at the time. The umbrella is not just an inanimate thing. It reminds us that even inanimate objects have some power over humans.

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