National pride can be good… but it can also make you foolish and wet. In the 1750s, a London man took to the streets holding an umbrella—and braved jeers, rock-throwing haters, and even a cab that tried to run him over. We explore why rainy England was once so anti-umbrella, and whether that fight was really ever settled.
Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive. I'm Jason Feifer. If you were an 18th century London, or there may have been few social scandals greater than what occurred around 1750. Now we don't have the exact date that the madness began, but we do know what the weather was like. It was raining. So it was London. The skies were dark, the wind was unfriendly and puddles collected in the street. Rich people had long been able to avoid all this by hailing a coach, which was basically a covered horse-drawn wagon, which was the only available option for getting from here to there while staying dry. Everyone else just did what Londoners had done since long before the name London existed, which is to say they got wet.
But then a man appeared out of the fog. His name was Jonas Hanway. And unlike most people who hunched against the wet blanket of rain, Hanway stood upright. He was dry and that's because he was carrying with him the most objectionable of objects. A device that would send shock waves through London society. It was dare I even say the word an umbrella.
Michael Waters: So when he walked down the street with his umbrella, when it was raining, he experienced a lot of laughter. People cheered at him. The public just thought it was ridiculous to see this man, this upper-class man strolling around with an umbrella, even though it was raining.
Jason Feifer: This is freelance reporter Michael Waters. And he wrote about Hanway's umbrella incident in Atlas Obscura. It was as far as anyone knows the first prominent usage of a man carrying an umbrella around London and despite the mockery, Hanway kept at it, which only made things worse.
Michael Waters: A British historical magazine wrote that Hanway was pelted with rubbish by cab drivers. And one note where the incident, some cab driver tried to run Hanway and Hanway reacted by hitting him with the umbrella.
Jason Feifer: You know, of all the technological innovations to get upset about, this seems like about the craziest. I mean, British people getting upset by something that keeps them dry. It's like fuller radians being upset by sunglasses. It's like people in Iceland being upset by winter coats. The umbrella would seem to solve the most fundamental challenge of living in England. How possibly could people reject this? And to be clear, this reaction was not just limited to Jonas Hanway. He was part of a roughly 100 year period from 1680 to 1780, when the Brits had a very strong negative feeling about the umbrella. Whenever some brave soul stepped out onto the street and tried not to get wet, they were met with similar resistance. An 1896 publication called Notes and Queries contains a nice collection of these incidents. It calls itself, "A medium of intercommunication for literary men, general readers, et cetera," which I guess means it was sort of like a stuffy 18 hundreds version of Twitter or something.
Anyway, notes and queries tells us that a 1770 volume called Draper's dictionary stated, "When men began to use umbrellas, they were hooted and jeered at as French men." A little later, we have this anecdote about a fellow named MacDonald.
Zoe Kleinman: McDonald, a footman records in his biography for 1778, that he had bought a fine silk umbrella from Spain, but could not use it for some time without being followed by cries of, Frenchmen why don't you get a coach?
Jason Feifer: By the way, that's BBC presenters, Zoe Kleinman. Who's our archival reader of this episode. The reason there's so much Frenchmen being thrown around is that the British associated the umbrella with the French and anything French did not play well in England. Calling someone a Frenchman was like calling them a feminine and simpering, but as we'll get into soon, machismo was hardly the only explanation for anti umbrella fervor. For example, here's a nice touch of classism, too.
Zoe Kleinman: Those who wish not to be confounded with the vulgar, prefer to run the risk of getting wet than to be regarded as people who walk on foot for the umbrella is the sign of having no carriage.
Jason Feifer: For what it's worth that was written by a French writer named and I'm going to butcher this Louis-Antoine Caraccioli, that sounded Italian anyway, who died in 1803. I'm sure he wouldn't have been thrilled to have been read in a British accent, but too bad Louis-Antoine history is cruel. In any way you get the idea, the umbrella was not fancy. It was pathetic and boarish and obscene, and it meant you totally can't afford a carriage you inferior lady like piece of crap. So in this episode, we're going to try to understand all that pessimism, how does something so useful get rejected in the place where it's actually most useful? And to do that let's step away from England for a second. The umbrella is at least 2000 years old and its history is also basically the history of the parasol, which is an umbrella that blocks the sun, but isn't built to withstand rain.
There's no way to know its actual origins, but we know that some version of it had shown up in ancient cultures around the world, including the Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and even the Aztecs. The parasol was for much of the world is obvious an idea is building a roof over our heads. Though, when it made its way into the west, it was very much a woman's accessory that helped them protect their fair complexions. Still by the 1600s, this device was just nowhere to be found in England. And then something called the grand tour began. This was like the 17th century version of our post-collegiate European backpacking trips. After they graduated from Oxford or wherever, very wealthy, young Englishman, and eventually young rich kids from other European nations would travel around to France and Italy and other cultural meccas. The point was for them to learn about art and culture and philosophy and all the things that European society needed them to be fluent in. But it also happened to expose them to a different kind of realization, which was this, the rest of the world isn't nearly as rainy as England is.
Vladimir Yankov...: So when they came back, they were like, well, there must be something I can do to save myself from the misery of constant wind and rain.
Jason Feifer: That's Vladimir Yankovich, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester and a historian of Atmospheric Sciences. And there was a solution, of course, these grand tour kids would have already seen it because it was in use in many other European nations that they'd visited. It was the umbrella, but actually bringing the umbrella back to England, that would be tricky. Because remember what Yankovich just said a second ago, his words exactly were the misery of constant wind and rain.
Vladimir Yankov...: Now, that in itself saying in words that I just put would be rather unpatriotic because what the Brits believe most of their history is that rain and there's sort of a insular and their archipelago position made them who they were, kind of a sturdy, robust, independent, and different people.
Jason Feifer: The Brits had basically spent thousands of years saying, thank you sir, may I have another absolute total downpour? And that is a terrible accident. That is exactly why I asked to BBC reporter to help me out on this episode, but that's not the only cultural problem the umbrella would trigger. Yankovich is the author of a book called Confronting the Climate: British Heirs and the Making of Environmental Medicine. In which he chronicles a long history of people rejecting any effort to change their own personal climates. The rejection of the umbrella is actually a pretty standard part of this history, he says whether it was building ventilation or waterproof clothing or systems to stop drafts from blowing through homes, many people often felt like there was just something unnatural about trying to control the air around them. And in 1750, in fact, hospital workers were even upset by efforts to pump in fresh air for patients.
Vladimir Yankov...: One of the nurses working in a hospital objected to having a fresh air delivered by vital mechanical bellows, by saying we prefer the Almighty's air, not the artificial air. So the notion of air being artificially produced or artificially introduced in indoors was contrary to what, how people imagined and what people imagined air was.
Jason Feifer: And how the hell was the umbrella supposed to compete with that? Here's what happened instead, the umbrella became adopted by working class women. This, for some reason, seemed acceptable to British society. I guess it's like if these poor inconsequential women want to opt out of what makes England great while also rejecting the Almighty's wet air, well then, go for it ladies. By the early 1700s dictionary started describing the device specifically as a thing for women to use. Like that would be the actual definition, a dictionary from 1720 called the new world of words defines an umbrella as quote, commonly used by women to shelter them from the rain. Soon, the umbrella in a woman's hand became just a normal part of London scenery. To get a sense of what that looks like.
It's worth hearing a part of a 1716 poem by John Gay called Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London. The poem is referenced in the Oxford English dictionary is one of the earliest references to the umbrella in England. And Gay, the poet describes people coming and going in the rain. Elsewhere in the poem, he clearly notes that he is wearing a cloak to shield him from the rain lest you think he's holding one of those things himself, but the women are doing something different.
Zoe Kleinman: Good Housewives, all the winters rage despise defended by the writing Hood's disguise or underneath the umbrella is oily shed safe through the wet on clinking patterns tread. Let Persian Dames umbrellas ribs display, to guard their beauties from the sunny Ray. All sweating slaves support the shady load when Eastern monarchs show their state abroad. Britain in winter only knows its aid to God from Chitty showers the walking made.
Jason Feifer: The first time I read that I didn't totally understand what was going on. I'm just not really good at processing poetry. So I talked to Irene Fizer and associate professor of English at Hofstra University who specializes in 18th century, British literature and cultural studies. She says that Gay is first pointing out that in Eastern culture, the umbrella is often used very ceremonially.
Irene Fizer: He, Gay sets that up as a contrast right in the east it's monarchs who have umbrellas carried over heads, but now in London and our modern London, our women, our housewives and our maids, our servants, our servant maids. And they are finding that the umbrella is an extraordinarily useful thing to have about their person, because they can do their errands and they can walk the streets safely protected under the umbrellas quote, unquote oily shed.
Jason Feifer: And what would it take for a man to acceptably hold an umbrella? In 1719 only three years after that poem, we get a little answer to that question. It's Robinson Crusoe, a novel about a British man who gets shipwrecked on a Caribbean island. The place is hot with relentless sun and cannibals, keep showing up to eat people. So not your usual Caribbean vacation and Crusoe who's dressed in a goatskin getup is carrying around that umbrella that's also covered in goatskin, which he repeatedly describes as ugly, but it's also useful. He calls it quote, "The most necessary thing I had about me next to my gun."
Irene Fizer: I think that the umbrella caps this whole costume that Crusoe creates himself. Because I think, and it's really, I think born out in the text, that he feels incredible anxiety about that extreme state of isolation and under the umbrella, he's in a self-made world.
Jason Feifer: Fizer digs into the symbolism of this in an essay called The Fur Parasol: Masculine Dress, Prosthetic Skins, and the Making of the English Umbrella, which is also where I found some of the great quotes in this episode. And she says that the author of Robinson Crusoe might've even made the umbrella so gross and skin covered as a way to play to the audiences of the time. This literally is what it would take for a man to acceptably hold an umbrella. It's like when you are shipwrecked on a cannibal island, yeah go ahead and have the umbrella. You earned it man. But back in England, if you're a man so much as touching an umbrella, you might as well relinquish your manhood as well. There's a great little bit in a 1709 magazine called The Female Tatler, which gives you a sense of what men were up against. The mag contained a mock classified ads, supposedly written by quote, a society of ladies and quote. And it announced this.
Zoe Kleinman: The young gentlemen belonging to the custom house that for fear of rain borrowed the umbrella at Will's Coffee House in Cornhill of the mistress is hereby advertised that to be dry from head to foot on the like occasion, he shall be welcomed to the maids patterns.
Jason Feifer: The maids patterns. Smack. In case 1709 humor doesn't immediately land with you I'll translate or actually Fizer translated now I'm going to tell you. Anyway, a guy is in Will's Coffee shop and it's raining outside and he doesn't want to get wet. So he steals a woman's umbrella and walks out with it. And the author is saying, "Hey dude, next time you want to use an umbrella, go ahead and take a woman's rain shoes too." That's what patents are basically, because you are a woman for taking that umbrella. And this is the environment that our friend Jonas Hanway is walking into when he takes to the streets of London with an umbrella around 1750, he's up against a lot, right?
The British sense of self-worth and a men's sense of manliness and a culture sense of what's natural and unnatural. And let's not forget an industry of horse-drawn carriages that definitely don't want people walking around and staying dry for free. So who would take all this on? Who was this brave man? And why did he champion the umbrella? He was a merchant who did a lot of traveling, which is probably how he discovered the thing in the first place. And he was also kind of weird and obsessive. Here's Michael Waters again.
Michael Waters: So he published four books, very long books on the development of British trade in the Caspian sea. And this led a scholar at the time to call him one of the most splendid bores of English history.
Jason Feifer: And interestingly, Jonas Hanway wasn't reliably, a progressive person. You might think a guy like Hanway, who's willing to stand up for the umbrella would also welcome other big changes to English culture. But no, he once went on a long campaign against tea, which was making its way into England around the same time. He claimed hot water ruins people's teeth and tea makes people lazy. And that it's a gateway drug to booze. His writing on this is like amazing. I'm kind of tempted to just derail this episode and make it about weird objections to tea. But all right, I'll just give you one, here's a Hanway.
Zoe Kleinman: Men seem to have lost their stature and communists and women have beauty. I'm not young, but me thinks there is not quite so much beauty in this land as there was. Your very chambermaids have lost their bloom, I suppose, by sipping tea.
Jason Feifer: Right? Why didn't we make this episode about tea? Anyway, even a crazy bastard like that understood how obviously valuable the umbrella was. I mean, who wants to get wet all the time? Right? So starting in 1750 and going basically until he died in 1786, Hanway used an umbrella in a funny thing happened along the way, the culture caught up to him. Slowly, slowly other men braved the streets as well until the pessimists were no longer champions of British culture and we're just the cranky jerks getting wet on the street. There's no one reason the tides turned on this, but Fizer says the umbrella was probably helped out by a whole host of cultural changes. London at this time was developing the beginnings of a street culture. The kind of thing we saw portrayed in that point.
Irene Fizer: By the early 19th century, you have shopping districts that are fully formed. People needing to go about their business and daily lives, men and women, and just a greater acceptance of the street being a place where commerce, informal and formal interactions can take place.
Jason Feifer: That brought with it a desire to actually stroll and enjoy the day despite the weather. Men would have wanted to partake in that too. But here's a question I've started to wonder for as absurd as all this seems today, have we actually fully left the umbrella stigmatism behind? You could argue no. Do you remember back in 2013, when president Obama was giving an outdoor news conference with the Turkish prime minister and it started to rain?
Barack Obama: I am going to go ahead and ask folks, why don't we get a couple of Marines? They're going to look good next to us, just because I want them, I've got to change his suits, but I don't know about our prime minister.
Jason Feifer: Obama was making what he probably thought was a simple request. He was asking two nearby Marines to come over and hold umbrellas over his and the prime minister's heads, which they did. But then conservative critics freaked out because by the current US Marine uniform standards, men are not allowed to carry or use umbrellas while in uniform, although women can. And you have to wonder, is this a policy from modern times or 1700s England. Also think about all the times that poison or spear tipped umbrellas have been used to kill people in movies. Is that basically our modern version of Robinson Crusoe's goatskin umbrella. Like we still need to make this thing as rugged as possible? The umbrella is not perfect. That much is clear. I mean, it's kind of clumsy to hold and it's total crap against the wind. It feels today, like the kind of thing that we should have a better version of, but there's much to say about the beauty of its simplicity.
That sometimes like the three blade razor or the first version of Microsoft Word, there isn't much further need for innovation. Thousands of years ago, someone or multiple people around the world all thought to hold something above their head to knock off the rain. And the elegance of that idea is hard to improve upon. After that, it's just up to us, whether we can humble ourselves enough to accept it. And funny enough in England, a lot of people don't. They still prefer to walk in the rain without an umbrella.
Vladimir Yankov...: You're not going to get comfortable in this place ever, with or without umbrella. So why not accept? So if you come to Manchester, for example, with you where I live and we'll see rain virtually every day during the year. You don't really see many umbrellas on the street, right?
Jason Feifer: Even now?
Vladimir Yankov...: Yeah. Partly because it seems rather pointless to carry something that you would probably need all the time. So it feels like, you have to get used to it. And so people go in rain, people get drenched, essentially the way to face the reality is to ignore it.
Jason Feifer: The way to face the reality is to ignore it. Those words can mean so many things, depending on the context. If you apply them to fake news or climate change or any big structural problem, you're doing a kind of head in the sand move, ducking the truth for fear of what it would mean to actually look at reality, head on. Because those things do need to be met head on, but most technological questions aren't that big they're just personal decisions. Yankovich is saying that when you live under constant rain, the way that he does the umbrella doesn't do the job it's actually designed to do, which is to say that the umbrella isn't really about rain. It's about comfort. And in a place where it's always raining, where committing to using an umbrella means carrying the thing around everywhere you go all the time. Maybe it's more comfortable to just get wet. You can't fault the guy for that.
And this is an important distinction in tech pessimism. It's okay to say, this isn't for me, that's not a problem. The problem comes when you say, you know, this isn't for other people, that's what they were doing in the 1700s. Not today. Right? I mean I guess I should check, follow up question on that. On the umbrella today. Do you look down upon people who are walking around with umbrellas in your neighborhood?
Vladimir Yankov...: No, partly because I don't see many.
Jason Feifer: And that's our episode. You might be wondering, am I really going to resist not using another great anti tea quote? Oh, no, I've got another one for you. But first I want to tell you this. Thanks again to BBC presenters, Zoe Kleinman for lending her wonderful accent to us. You can follow her on Twitter at, @zsk that's at zebra, skeleton, kilo. And again, thanks to Michael Waters who's Atlas Obscura story inspired this episode. And to Irene Fizer and Vladimir Yankovich we'll have links to all of their work at our show page, which you can find online at pessimistsarc And while you're online, don't forget to follow us on Twitter at, @pessimistsarc, P-E-S-S-I-M-I-S-T-S-A-R-C, leave us a non pessimistic review on iTunes, which really does help us reach other people. And if you have a comment, drop us a line we're at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pessimists Archive was created by Louis Anslow. Louis and Jennifer Ritter, were our producers, this episode, and we were edited by Chris Cornelis.
And now the moment you've been waiting for another great Jonas Hanway anti tea quote, how many sweet creatures of your sex languish with a weak digestion, low spirits, latitudes melancholy, and 20 disorders, which in spite of the faculty have yet no names except the general one of nervous complaints? Let them change their diet. And among other articles leave off drinking tea. It is more than probable. The greatest part of them will be restored to health. I love the specificity of that by the way. 20 disorders for drinking tea, not 19, not 21. You drink tea, you got 20 disorders. Anyway, our next episode will be about the bicycle, not tea. I guess we'll see about that.
I'm Jason Feifer and we will see you in the near future.
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