When first we came, all the umbrellas were up, but now the pavements are getting very white again.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Bath, May 17, 1799
During the 17th century, ladies used parasols for protection from the sun. A century later they were using oiled umbrellas as protection from the rain as well. By the early 19th century, the design of the umbrella had improved and its use had become widespread. After Maria’s marriage, Fanny Price was overtaken by a heavy shower close to the Parsonage and sought shelter under an oak. When the Grants spotted her, they sent out a servant, but Fanny was reluctant to come in:
A civil servant she had withstood but when Dr Grant himself went out with an umbrella there was nothing to be done but to be very much ashamed and to get into the house as fast as possible; and to poor Miss Crawford, who had just been contemplating the dismal rain in a very desponding state of mind, sighing over the ruin of all her plans of exercise for that morning, and of every chance of seeing a single creature beyond themselves for the next twenty four hours, the sound of a little bustle at the front door and the sight of Miss Price dripping with wet in the vestibule was delightful. – Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
A century before Mansfield Park was published (1814) men did not use umbrellas, which were regarded as women’s accessories:
A young man who borrowed one from a coffee house in a downpour in 1709 was excoriated as effeminate in a newspaper. It would have been a cumbersome model, ill-suited to being carried around. Similar heavy umbrellas were kept in churches to protect the parson during burial services. – A Brief History of the Umbrella
Yet the following passage from Notes and queries, Volume 54, William White (Oxford University Press, 1876, p. 202), suggests that men began to use umbrellas earlier than Jonas Hanway, who braved ridicule from street urchins and hackney coachmen, who regarded the use of the umbrella as a threat to their livelihood:
1745 – Paid for umbrella, box and carriage.
It is not stated for whose use this was intended; most probably for the minister when officiating at funerals. This is a remarkable entry, as the introduction of umbrellas into England is attributed to a much later period. The employment of the umbrella in the streets London is said to have been by Jonas Hanway, who died in 1786; but the following passage from the Trivia of Gay, who died in 1732, shows it was in use at a much earlier period
Good housewives Defended by th’ umbrella’s oily shed,
Safe through the wet on clinking pattens tread.”
In 1893, Georgiana Hill wrote this descriptive history of the umbrella in England:
Umbrellas were a recent fashion in the earlier part of the century. During the first ten years of George the Third’s reign, the only umbrellas in use were large carriage umbrellas, which required an attendant to hold them. In the country they were hardly known at all. The philanthropist, Jonas Hanway, in 1756, boldly unfurled an umbrella in the streets of London, being the first man who ventured upon such an innovation. Surely Hanway deserves to be held in grateful remembrance by the male sex for this spirited effort towards the emancipation of his brethren from the thraldom of custom. He was jeered and ridiculed by the populace, but was not to be laughed into giving up the sheltering oilskin. About twenty years later, a valiant footman named John Macdonald began to use a silk umbrella, which he had brought from Spain. The boys shouted after him: “Frenchman, why don’t you get a coach?” but he grasped his umbrella more firmly and went on his way, and in some three months time he was able to use it without exciting remark. Miss J. Gay Trivia Hutton, writing in 1779 from Derbyshire, says: “Mrs Greaves lent us their umbrella, and servant to carry it.” Miss Hutton’s brother was the person to use an umbrella in Birmingham, a Frenchman being the first.
The town beau, when he first carried an umbrella, was caricatured in the prints as the rain-beau holding a tiny parasol over his head. A gentleman once borrowed an umbrella from the mistress of a coffee- house in Cornhill, and after the following satirical advertisement in The Female Tatler: “The young gentleman belonging to the Custom house, that for fear of rain borrowed the umbrella from Will’s Coffee house in Cornhill, of the mistress, is hereby advertised to be dry from head to foot on the like occasion he shall be welcome to the maid’s pattens.”
An illustration of the want of umbrellas afforded in one of the caricatures of the period, showing a respectable citizen’s family from Vauxhall in a downpour of rain – the old gentleman with a handkerchief tied over his head to save his wig, and his wife’s cardinal on his to protect his best coat, while the wife herself and her daughters are tripping along in gowns turned up round their waists, and their heads enveloped in coloured handkerchiefs. In 1797 there was one umbrella in all Cambridge, and that was kept at a shop, and let out like a sedan chair ,by the hour. In London women carried umbrellas before men had taken to them, but the first umbrellas were heavy awkward machines made of oilskin or taffeta. Still, in spite of their cumbrous character, women who had to trudge along the streets on rainy days rejoiced in their shelter. With cloak and umbrella, they were able to face the dripping roofs and waterspouts, which were as much to be avoided as the rain. To the fashionable lady. who only walked in fine weather, the one important consideration was the parasol, but it was otherwise with the thrifty citizeness. Great must have been the relief and saving of clothes when the new invention came into use:
Good housewives all the winter’s rage despise,
Defended by the riding hood’s disguise;
Or underneath the umbrella’s oily shade,
Safe through the wet on clinking pattens tread.
Let Persian dames the umbrella’s ribs display,
To guard their beauties from the sunny ray;
Or sweating slaves support the shady load,
When Eastern monarchs show their state abroad;
Britain in winter only knows its aid,
To guard from chilling showers the walking maid.”
– J Gay Trivia
– A history of English dress from the Saxon period to the present day, Volume 1, By Georgiana Hill , 1893, p. 173-74.
Early umbrellas were heavy and cumbersome to use:
Early umbrellas were made of oiled silk with heavy wooden frames which made them difficult to open or close when wet. Whalebone (baleen) was also used but this still made the article heavy. It wasn’t until 1852 that Samuel Fox invented the steel ribbed umbrella claiming that he was using up stocks bought for making corsets. This made umbrellas much lighter and more portable.
– Come rain or shine: historic umbrellas and parasols
Vic Sanborn oversees two blogs: Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen’s World. Before 2006 she merely adored Jane Austen and read Pride and Prejudice faithfully every year. These days, she is immersed in reading and writing about the author’s life and the Regency era. Co-founder of her local (and very small) book group, Janeites on the James, she began her blogs as a way to share her research on the Regency era for her novel, which sits unpublished on a dusty shelf. In her working life, Vic provides resources and professional development for teachers and administrators of Virginia’s adult education and literacy programs. This article was written for Jane Austen’s World and is used here with permission.