Umbrella Day may be held on 10 February each year, but as Alice Rush discovers this beloved British icon is still celebrated daily at Europe’s oldest umbrella shop
In this green, pleasant and occasionally damp land, there are few items more appreciated than the umbrella. And yet the first Englishman known to have carried one met with considerable resistance on the streets of London. The man in question was philanthropist Jonas Hanway who is said to have adopted the practice from his travels abroad in the 1750s.
Overseas, the history of the umbrella’s close relative, the parasol, stretches back over 3,000 years to Egypt, with the first record of a collapsible umbrella dating to AD 21 in China. As William Sangster writes in Umbrellas and their History, Hanway “probably felt the benefit of one during his travels in Persia, where they were in constant use as a protection against the sun”. (The word in fact derives from a diminutive of the Latin word umbra, meaning shade.)
In common use in France from the early 1600s, umbrellas were only used by women in Britain from around 1700. They make an appearance in John Gay’s Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London, published in 1716, but they were clearly seen as a feminine accessory. “Britain in winter only knows its aid/To guard from chilly showers the walking maid,” writes Gay.
As a man with an umbrella Hanway, then, was jeered and mocked by everyone he came across. Coachmen, who realised the threat to their business his portable canopy represented, even pelted him with rubbish. Yet by the time of his death in 1786, umbrella usage was on the rise.
Hanway’s contribution is remembered gratefully by James Smith and Son Umbrella Shop, where his portrait hangs on the wall to this day. Known by the cabbies and locals simply as the Umbrella Shop, James Smith and Son is an almost unaltered Victorian time capsule. The oldest umbrella shop in Europe, its current headquarters on New Oxford Street have changed little since the business moved there in 1857 from Foubert Place, where it opened in 1830.
The reason for the move was the expansion of the business in the wake of Samuel Fox’s invention of the lightweight steel-ribbed frame in 1852, which was swiftly adopted by James Smith II. Before that, men’s umbrellas were heavy, ungainly things made with whalebone or cane ribs. The central stick would be a stout affair, around one inch in diameter, and the canopy would comprise a heavy fabric, waterproofed with oil or wax.
Today, the famous shop offers a glorious range of handcrafted umbrellas, parasols and walking sticks with all manner of exquisitely carved creatures featuring on the handles.