For thousands of years, members of the ruling class have been shielded from sun and rain, but the handheld umbrella didn’t come into use until much later. During the renaissance, wealthy women carried dainty, lightweight sunshades to protect delicate skin from the sun. Men, however, would have to wait several years and even then, the shaming of the first umbrella user almost prevented it from catching on.
The lightweight parasols carried by women of Europe may have been designed in Asia but they were never meant to shield the user from the rain. They were also used exclusively by women until the 18th century when a Paris merchant added waterproofing. The modern-day umbrella migrated to England and caused quite an uproar, when Jonas Hanway returned from France with an umbrella which he opened, just for himself.
At that time, umbrella use was not considered “manly” – it actually wasn’t considered at all. In 18th century England, no one, even women, dared to carry an umbrella. Despite the fact that England is quite rainy, it was seen as a symptom of weakness to want to shield yourself from the rain. Aside from the effeminate nature of the instrument, it was entirely too French – even the name “parasol” was unseemly and the user would be mocked.
Jonas Hanway apparently did not care. He had purchased his umbrella when visiting Paris and being an eccentric, familiar with controversy, he paid no attention to the strange looks and shocked expressions on those passing by. He was the target of name calling and ridicule as he walked about London, but his umbrella use made him a target of something more sinister.
In the city, most everyone walked anywhere they went. The only alternative modes of transportation were the hansom cab – a two-wheeled carriage and the sedan chair, both of which had rain canopies to shield their passengers from the rain. On rainy days, business became brisk because the walkers of London would flock to the coaches to escape the rain.
Despite the fact that it was carried by something of a kook, Hanway’s umbrella represented more than a challenge to manliness. The umbrella was a threat to the livelihood of the coach drivers who made it clear that they wanted him to get rid of his umbrella. When he didn’t even respond to being “pelted with rubbish,” they reportedly tried to get rid of him and his umbrella.
The day one of the cab drivers tried to run him over, was the day that people started seeing umbrellas as something more than unmanly. According to a London magazine, Hanway used his umbrella as a weapon, to give the driver a good “thrashing.” Likely, he was always considered a bit loony, but by the time Hanway died, thirty years later, an umbrella factory was opened in London. Since the weather in England hasn’t changed, millions of Londoners are grateful that he was able to withstand the shaming of the first umbrella user.