Paul Johnson

And another thing | 21 July 2007

The moral theology of the umbrella stand

Text settings

The wet weather this summer has made me think about umbrellas, and the curious moral associations they attract. It is not so in the Orient, where they were invented (in China) sometime early in the first millennium bc. There they were designed to protect exalted persons against the sun. They were carried by attendants in state processions and were associated with power, privilege and class. We would call them parasols. The plebs were not allowed to possess or use them and often they were carefully graded, in size and elaboration, in accordance with the dignity of the owner. There are occasional hints of similar status-parasols in the West. Thus Louis XIV’s dreadful court painter, Charles Le Brun, in his only really successful work, The Chancellor Séguier in Procession, shows this high official on horseback, attended by pages, one of whom holds a fringed silk sunshade over his head. That vignette clearly indicates the adoption of an oriental custom, rather than an indigenous invention. Less clear, however, is the motive of Robinson Crusoe, that ingenious man, in creating a parasol-umbrella for himself on his island. In his admirable essay ‘The Philosophy of Umbrellas’ Robert Louis Stevenson suggests that Crusoe’s object in going to such trouble was moral: ‘The memory of a vanished respectability called for some outward manifestation, and the result was — an umbrella.’

He adds: ‘A pious castaway might have rigged up a belfry and solaced his Sunday mornings with the mimicry of church bells; but Crusoe was rather a moralist than a pietist, and his leaf-umbrella is as fine an example of the civilised mind striving to express itself under adverse circumstances as we have ever met with.’

That may be so. But the chronology does not fit. Defoe lived from 1660 to 1731, and he published Robinson Crusoe in 1719. I am not sure whether, at that date, umbrellas were firmly associated in the public mind with civilisation, still less ‘respectability’. As it happens, there is no good modern history of the umbrella. Some doubt appears to exist about the time of its general adoption. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says ‘mid-19th century’. That is obviously wrong. Has the compiler never heard of Mrs Gamp? She appeared in Martin Chuzzlewit, published in 1843–44, by which time the umbrella, as a symbol of respectability, had already descended far down the social scale, at any rate among the female sex. Sarah Gamp’s large cotton umbrella was her emblem of office as a professional person. The name ‘Gamp’ was immediately adopted, not for the silk ones carried by the well-to-do, but for the cheap plebeian version, evidently by then well established. A generation before Charles Lamb, in his essay on the Old Benchers, had described, as an example of exquisite courtesy, how one of them had used his umbrella to protect an old market woman from the rain, while he escorted her across the puddle. This is the subject of a superb line-drawing by the great E.H. Shepard, in Everybody’s Lamb (1933).

What did occur in the mid-19th century was the mass production of umbrellas with light steel frames, the modern version, in short. Hitherto the spokes had been of wood — originally of bamboo, denoting their eastern provenance. They must have been rather clumsy contraptions, which may explain why their adoption was so slow in rainy Britain. They almost certainly began to appear in noticeable numbers in the third quarter of the 18th century, and the evidence points to the man responsible. His name was Jonas Hanway (1712–86), a merchant in the Russia trade who made his name by his account of his travels round the Caspian Sea, which appeared in 1753 and went into at least four editions. Hanway both made money and inherited it, and set himself up as a philanthropist. Among the good causes he promoted were reform of the highways, protection of foundlings and unmarried mothers by opening ‘Magdalen Hospitals’, the training of poor boys in seamanship and legal protection for chimney sweeps. Equally, he campaigned against tipping and tea-drinking. He became a well-known figure in London, celebrated for pious works and practices, church-going and sober black attire. And — he invariably carried an umbrella, whatever the state of the weather, being the first Londoner to habitually do so. The Dictionary of National Biography records: ‘After persevering for some 30 years, in spite of the jeers of the passengers and the clamour of the chairmen and hackney coachmen, he saw his own practice generally adopted.’

It was Hanway who essentially gave the English umbrella the aura of respectability, which in a curious way it retains to this day. He was a bore, albeit a highly respectable bore. He wrote prodigiously on a vast variety of subjects, all with moral overtones. His list of publications fills four and a half columns in the DNB. Dr Johnson wrote of him that he ‘acquired some reputation by travelling abroad, but lost it all by travelling at home’. But then Dr Johnson had crossed swords with him over the tea issue, writing a severe refutation of Hanway’s pamphlet in the Literary Magazine. Hanway published an angry answer, and Johnson actually replied to it, a unique event: ‘the only instance,’ wrote Boswell, ‘in the whole course of his life, when he condescended to oppose anything that was written against him.’ So Hanway must have been a figure of some weight. He was known to, among others, Fanny Burney, who described him as a great talker, and entertaining enough to listen to provided he stuck to what he had seen and heard. Alas, he was inclined to pad out his anecdotes by telling you stuff he had read in the newspapers. By the time of Carlyle’s first coming to London he was remembered only as ‘a dull, worthy man’, though ‘he was not always so extinct as he has now become’.

So much for the man who popularised umbrella-carrying, thereby adding a distinct extra dimension to the English character. Our attachment to the umbrella is not paralleled elsewhere, on the Continent or even in America. There, it remains strictly utilitarian. For us it has not just moral but aesthetic overtones. Emerson noted, and recorded that, ‘An Englishman walks in a pouring rain, swinging his closed umbrella like a walking stick.’ Well, yes: because if you’ve managed to roll it to the highest possible standards of thinness, you are not going to undo your work for a transient shower. Stevenson pointed out another habit among some people: to carry types of umbrella deceptive of their social status. A gentleman might, of set purpose, sport a gamp. And an upward thruster, with the intention to mislead, might buy himself the finest silk. As the kind of umbrella a man carries ought to be a sure indicator of class and character, this is a serious sin against social truth. As Stevenson puts it: ‘A mendacious umbrella is a sign of great moral degradation.’

It is a horrid fact, however, that the umbrella, the quintessential mark of respectability, leads to immorality. As Judge Bowen wrote over a century ago:

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella:
But chiefly on the just because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.
The heavy rain this summer reveals again that taking an umbrella is not, in the minds of many, theft. Just borrowing.