A Bumbershoot Fit for a King: Umbrellas and Why We Love Them

10089015403_21bb2ed111The art of the umbrella is often overlooked. Umbrellas can be mundane, a commodity available for a few dollars at every drug and convenience store in town. Given the cost and the quality of those umbrellas, it’s safe to assume that people consider them disposable. But, consider – an umbrella stands between you and the elements, protecting your hair, your clothes, and your dignity. Umbrellas were once a privilege reserved for kings and emperors. It’s time to show a little appreciation for this noble symbol of man’s staunch determination to carry on despite the whims of nature.

Umbrellas Span the Ages

Umbrellas have been a part of history for as long as bad weather – which is to say, forever. Egyptian hieroglyphics show servants holding umbrellas over the heads of deities and kings. In ancient Ninevah, only the monarch enjoyed the protection of an umbrella; the peons had to either roast or get soaked as the heavens willed. Ancient China had collapsible versions dating to the 6th century BC – they’re just like modern umbrellas. In ancient Greece and Rome, the umbrella was a crucial part of every respectable lady’s wardrobe. The papal seal for the sede vacante, or the time between popes, prominently features an umbrella, or umbraculum. The pope also bestows umbrellas on churches to mark their elevation to basilica status.

Today, umbrellas are widely used across the globe to protect humanity from the vagaries of the weather. Called bumbershoots in American slang and brollies or gamps across the pond, umbrellas are ubiquitous. There are songs dedicated to umbrellas by such prestigious artists as Donnie and Marie Osmond. No longer the sole purview of gods and kings, umbrellas are available to the masses. Unfortunately, as is the case with most products, popularization has led to demand for low prices – with correspondingly low quality.

Umbrellas 101

You’re probably familiar with the basic umbrella types. Compact umbrellas are popular today because they fit in purses and briefcases with ease. Traditional umbrellas have straight shafts that don’t collapse. Compact umbrellas are portable and lightweight; traditional umbrellas have a touch of class and often come in larger sizes. Today, both are available for ten bucks or less. Of course, you get what you pay for.

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We’ve all seen cartoons where a gust of wind blows some unfortunate soul’s umbrella inside out. As a cartoon or a scene in a sitcom, it’s hilarious. When it happens to you and you’re on your way to a job interview with a new suit and new shoes, hair carefully coiffed, attaché case in hand, it’s not hilarious. It’s downright traumatic. Now you have to wrestle a mangled umbrella carcass into a trashcan on the street and run for shelter, hoping that your swanky duds aren’t completely ruined by their sudden soaking. You show up to your interview drenched and miserable and you don’t stand a chance next to those crisp, dry, clean suits the other applicants are sporting. Back to your parents’ basement! Now, it’s possible that that gust of wind was simply a brute and destroyed all umbrellas in its path (except, perhaps, the high-wind varieties). It’s much more likely that you simply bought a shoddy umbrella and you’re paying the price.

The sturdiest umbrellas are those with a single, solid shaft of wood or steel. If you need a compact umbrella for space reasons, look for a shaft and ribs made of fiberglass or steel. The aluminum varieties will crumple like a soda can if you look at them the wrong way. If you’re considering an automatic umbrella, take a look at the springs to make sure they’re sturdy. When the springs break, your umbrella will be useless. Check the rivets that attach the pieces of the ribs to each other and to the shaft. Hollow rivets indicate poor quality. They lose their shape easily, making it impossible to open and close your umbrella smoothly (or at all, in some cases). Weak frame materials also lead to the tragedy of an inside out umbrella, which cost you a job in the last paragraph.

Finally, look at the material of the canopy. Is it actually waterproof? Cheap umbrellas use cheap nylon – it’s sort of waterproof as long as it doesn’t get too wet. Better quality umbrellas use better quality nylon, cotton, or silk and treat the fabrics to ensure that you won’t get wet, no matter how heavy the downpour. Is the canopy actually attached to the frame or are the ribs just stuck into those little pockets at the corners of the canopy? Once the rib slips out of that pocket, God help you.

If your budget supports the very best of everything, take a look at high-end umbrella manufacturers Brigg (from the U.K., where it rains every day) and Maglia Francesco (from Italy, where it probably rains from time to time but everything is stylish and of good quality). These luxury umbrellas have hand-bent wooden handles, steel and brass structures and mechanisms. You can get handles wrapped in ostrich leather and canopies made of customized fabric.

Why You, Too, Need an Umbrella

After all that, you’re almost definitely considering getting yourself an umbrella worth the name. Keep in mind the myriad uses of a good quality bumbershoot:

Protection from the Elements

This is the obvious one. Use your umbrella to shield yourself from the rain. Also use it to shield yourself from the sun (and the accompanying premature aging and skin cancer).

Fashion

A good umbrella never goes out of style. You can choose from any color or pattern under the sun. A full-length umbrella also doubles as a walking stick, making it the perfect accessory for those long country strolls.

Social Life

An umbrella is the perfect way to start a conversation with an attractive stranger. Imagine it – a beautiful girl or a handsome fellow standing in the rain, caught without a quality umbrella. You can offer her or him refuge from the elements under yours. You’re holding the umbrella over this fortunate stranger so you’re already necessarily in close proximity – their gratitude for your gesture will do the hard work for you.

Protection

Just as a sturdy umbrella doubles as a walking stick, it doubles as a club. Hooligans and thugs beware – your well-constructed umbrella can deliver a solid whack.

Secret Ops

Gadgets aren’t just for James Bond anymore. You can buy an umbrella with a flask or a sword in the shaft, which basically bestows a double-0 designation on the spot. Historically, umbrella shafts have been used to deliver poison (the infamous “Bulgarian umbrella”) and bullets (maybe, depending on which conspiracy theories you believe) to targets ranging from political dissidents to mad scientists bent on world domination (mostly political dissidents).

 

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/56278705@N05/

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Molly Bachechi

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