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When getting dressed for the weather, there are a few universal rules. Is it cold? Grab a warm hat before heading out the door. Sunny? Layer on that sunscreen. Ominous dark clouds? Many of us are quick to pop an umbrella in our bag before leaving. A wretched umbrella. I’m here to say: We can do better.
Umbrellas are a feeble shield against the rain, a half-hearted gesture at the idea of cover from a storm. They crowd city streets and subway stairs, bonking bystanders on the head. They flip inside-out in a mild wind, and seem designed specifically to be lost.
In the same way that acquaintances, when they bump into each other, promise to finally get that catch-up drink, a person toting around an umbrella has told themselves a gentle and unnecessary lie—that it will really keep them dry.
Like hammers and handkerchiefs, umbrellas are too ancient to have a single, agreed-upon origin story. “More than three thousand years ago, they were held over monarchs for sun protection in ancient Egypt as well as ancient Assyria,” Marion Rankine wrote in her 2017 book Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature. As evidence of this global longevity, Rankine refers to frescos from the second century B.C. in India’s Ajanta Caves and umbrellas buried with the warlord Wang Kuang dated to 25 B.C. discovered in China.
The British industrialist Samuel Fox developed the modern steel-frame umbrella in 1852. He is credited with making the device more accessible, as Western umbrellas were previously scaffolded with costly, ghastly whalebone. His fellow Victorian-era Londoner Charles Dickens was obsessed with the invention. The novelist found symbolic resonance in the humble object; it is a tool of aggression for many of his female characters, like Mrs. Bagnet in Bleak House, who pokes people with hers. The critic John Bowen counted more than 120 references to umbrellas in Dickens’ work.
That’s good for him. A reminder: Dickens’ other literary fixations include an orphan crime ring, the spiritual misery begat by debtors’ prisons, and Christmas-based ghosts. Also, he died 150 years ago. There’s no need to begrudge our ancestors for using the materials at their disposal to stay shielded from the elements. They didn’t have access to the internet, so they did the best they could. But we do. The umbrella’s staying power is a testament to a failure of imagination.
That the umbrella remains a default weather accessory and also total crap is all the more galling when you consider its context. Industrialization has been a disaster for the environment. The arc of the moral universe might end up bending toward horror in the long run. The one area where humans have typically excelled in modernity is consumer goods. We have cars now, not horse-drawn carriages. Children’s toys have evolved far beyond the hoops and sticks pushed around by fancy lads long ago. Our forefathers stoked wood fires to cook their food; for us, the microwave exists!
Yet the umbrella remains largely unchanged since antiquity, ringed in nylon nowadays rather than silk, but still, it must be said, an ornament masquerading as a tool. A variety of entrepreneurs have introduced “smart” umbrellas equipped with GPS trackers and other tech-y accessories. While the effort is appreciated, an umbrella that requires an additional step of charging a battery is hardly a breakthrough in convenience.
Umbrella-hating is a time-honored hobby. In 2002, for example, the Guardian ran a column titled “Useless Things, Umbrellas,” and more recently, a media site called the Tylt published a debate called “Are Umbrellas Pointless AF?” Despite the public rancor, nothing changes.
Here’s the bottom line: The umbrella should be considered a relic, not a necessity. What should replace it?
A long, sturdy raincoat is the most couth solution to being out and about in the rain, but relying solely on such a coat requires a comfort with becoming wet against one’s will that many people may never reach. Staying indoors during inclement weather is another respectable solution, but unfortunately, many people are obliged to leave their homes despite drizzles and downpours; for those who choose to live in North America’s Pacific Northwest, electing to remain inside on rainy days results in full-blown hermit mode. No good.
The only viable option? Consider the long-maligned umbrella hat. Though it’s laughed off as a novelty, I find the umbrella hat a far more elegant option than the foul umbrella. With the simple attachment of an umbrella canopy to headgear, it eliminates the need to carry a stick around, freeing the hands. Yes, umbrella hats look undignified, but all hats look undignified, so who cares? Apparently, most people.
A variety of entrepreneurs have introduced “smart” umbrellas equipped with GPS trackers and other tech-y accessories. While the effort is appreciated, an umbrella that requires an additional step of charging a battery is hardly a breakthrough in convenience.
Several sustained attempts to endear the public to umbrella hats have failed, even though most umbrella-hat enthusiasts are adorable, forward-thinking eccentrics. Take Robert W. Patten, for example, a legendary bon vivant with a poofy white beard known as “Umbrella Hat Man.” He settled in a houseboat on Seattle’s Lake Union in the 1890s after serving in the Civil War, and became a fleeting national curiosity because of his devotion to wearing a homemade umbrella hat at all times while saying crazy shit. (Sample headline from 1901: “Weird Stories of Man With Umbrella Hat,” in the Boston Globe.) Patten’s likeness was used to boosterize Seattle, but his invention never actually took hold.
The former St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Lou Brock is best known for breaking the stolen-base record in 1977, but his contributions to forwarding the cause of wearing an umbrella on one’s head should not be forgotten. Brock introduced the “Brockabrella” during the height of his baseball fame, modeling the accessory during rainy pregame warm-ups. While the Cardinals occasionally distributed Brock’s invention to fans as a promotional gambit, the item never gained traction outside the ballpark.
In 2010, an entrepreneur named Alan Kaufman pitched an updated twist on the umbrella hat to the titular sharks of ABC’s Shark Tank. Nubrella, Kaufman’s company, offered an intense-looking garment worn backpack-style with a sturdy retractable canopy. The sharks bit, and—at least on television—it looked as though Kaufman might be the one to surge past novelty status with his hands-free option with the backing of telegenic venture capitalists. However, Kaufman has since sued the media and production companies behind Shark Tank, claiming that the show coerced him into pretending that he’d received an investment, and that ceaseless reruns had confused potential customers, who assumed he was selling a previous version of the product.
“Nubrella is going through some changes. We are not prepared at this time to comment on the company/product,” Kaufman said over email when I asked him to talk.
Damn. Best of luck.
With Kaufman preoccupied, I figured that a company willing to at least admit that normal umbrellas are terrible might be receptive to suggestions to just make an umbrella hat. “I’m wondering if you ever considered making an umbrella hat, or a coat with an umbrella-like hood attached?” I wrote to Weatherman, one of the companies currently selling “smart” umbrellas. (They offer a device with Bluetooth for $55.) “Those are really great ideas,” a customer support staffer wrote back. (Thank you.) “We’ll definitely forward this to our design team,” the staffer continued, informing me that I could stay updated in the meantime by joining the company’s mailing list. This was the end of our correspondence.
Next I spoke with Daniel Varghese, one of the authors of the guide to umbrellas on Wirecutter, the consumer goods reviewing website. I wanted to know whether the team had ever seriously considered reviewing umbrella hats. “We did,” he said. “But they’re all super flimsy and also equally disruptive to others.”
And so we are left with the wretched umbrella, proof—as if we needed it—that mediocrity can endure in the absence of greatness, and that the future may be exactly as stupid as the past.