Umbrellas: The iPhones of the Victorian Age

New technologies help create a sense of personal privacy in public.


Big cities are great places if you're looking for work, stimulation, love, or a new life. But the density that fosters excitement and opportunity also erodes security and identity. Amid the crush of strangers, a single person can feel violated or insignificant. So city dwellers are quick to adopt any technology suitable for carving out personal space in public.

Before the smartphone or the hoodie, the iPod or the Walkman—even before the automobile—that technology was the umbrella. It gave its bearer space and a semblance of privacy. Like the smartphone and the music player, it also provided ample material for humorists, social critics, and arbiters of manners.

In 1891, an anonymous Chicago Daily Tribune columnist called the umbrella "worse than a Gatling." Average women, the writer declared, "have not yet learned to carry umbrellas and parasols in a manner satisfactory to the unarmed pedestrian with a selfish interest in the preservation of life and limb." These deadly weapons weren't today's spring-loaded compacts but big models along the lines of golf umbrellas. Carried at an angle under the arm, they jabbed anyone who got too close.

Even while mocking the umbrella's propensity to take out the knees and ribs of innocent pedestrians, the columnist acknowledged the device's important social functions. "Women rely upon it to get them through crowds, to make uncomfortable the possessors of smarter bonnets than their own, to shield themselves from too inquisitive eyes, and to defend themselves from insult if they happen to be belated without other escort," he wrote.

A closed umbrella made a handy walking stick or prop while standing. An open umbrella was a screen against prying eyes. Lovers used them to create intimate spaces as they walked together or reclined in parks or on beaches. When Mississippi banned shades and screens on the windows of saloons, in an effort to shame drinkers, bar patrons began shielding themselves with open umbrellas.

"A man taking a drink at a bar under an umbrella is certainly not an example of conviviality," wrote a New York Times reporter in 1892, "and a row of men at bars retiring with their respective drinks under their several umbrellas, like so many inedible fungi of enormous size, present, one would suppose, a picture of the horrors of intemperance more dismal than was ever drawn by the late and ophidian [temperance crusader] John B. Gough." A judge ruled the subterfuge illegal: An umbrella constituted a screen under the law.

The most telling attack on the umbrella came in Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward: 1887–2000, published in 1888. A monster bestseller, it told the story of a man who awakens in the year 2000 to find Boston transformed into a paradise of collectivist planning. When it rains, a continuous waterproof canopy encloses the sidewalk, so no one needs an umbrella. The wise old man representing the author's views opines that "the difference between the age of individualism and that of concert was well characterized by the fact that, in the nineteenth century, when it rained, the people of Boston put up three hundred thousand umbrellas over as many heads, and in the twentieth century they put up one umbrella over all the heads."

Like the automobile later on, the umbrella offended those who imagined a more efficient mass system. They saw it only as a way to keep out the rain. But the umbrella served psychological purposes as well. On the crowded streets of the 19th century, it gave individuals a way to assert autonomy and control—to enjoy the public while preserving the private.

NEXT: Jon Haidt Hopes Libertarians Can Save Us From Coddled Campus Culture

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  1. Awesome, a new writer. I look forward to her many productive discussions with the commenters.

    1. This would never have happened when Postrel was in charge.

  2. “When it rains, a continuous waterproof canopy encloses the sidewalk, so no one needs an umbrella.”

    So, the sidewalk and roof rarely get cleaned and everybody has to wash their cars more often?

    I would think this would translate as “urban dust bowl” not “squeaky-clean utopia” but that’s just me.

    Disclaimer: I live in an area that, when it rains, makes its own gravy.

    1. OK, they specifically said “sidewalk” and for some reason I immediately imagined it enclosing the city. I can’t even blame the squirrels for this one. I still imagine those sidewalks getting nasty, though.

    2. This was before cars. Horseshit would have turned to an incredible gravy.

    3. I don’t think we share the same definition of “clean” when applied to cars.

      Rains makes a clean car dirtier and a dirty car, cleaner. Especially when you drive through the resulting puddles.

  3. So, I went to the corner and picked up the local fish wrap, and found a charter school nobody shut down yet:

    The Record

    Sunday, February 19, 2017 * Bergen Edition * $2.00

    (Wait, I paid two whole bucks for this shit? Jesus.)

    International Intrigue Surrounds Expanding Charter School Group

    Leaders, founders of New Jersey campuses linked to controversial Turkish cleric

    A group of charter schools that arose from North Jersey’s Turkish community is rapidly growing in the state, with seven schools collecting more than $60 million in taxpayer money last year alone to fund their growth.
    Now, an investigation by The Record and NorthJersey.com shows that some founders and leaders of the schools have close ties to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, the controversial Islamic cleric accused of working to overthrow the government in his native Turkey last summer. Gulen is fighting extradition demands as he lives in a secluded compound in Pennsylvania’s Pococo Mountains, about 10 miles from the New Jersey border.

    (Emphasis mine.)


    1. Well, OK, the emphasis would have been mine if the underline tag worked here. Any typos are mine regardless.

      So yeah, at least he’s not some right-wing extremist weirdo hiding in a militia compound and running a bunch of Christian schools on taxpayer money. I wonder what national coverage of this local story look like in that case?

      1. There are Christian charters?

        1. Well, one of the usual propaganda talking points against school choice is that it’s somehow a conspiracy to force everybody into religious schools. But this “controversial” religious figure can be involved in “intrigue” involving charter schools, and I’ve yet to hear the teacher’s unions screeching about it on every channel.

          How… intriguing.

          1. So you’re saying the NEA hasn’t declare jihad on this particular charter school?

  4. So the Victorian umbrella was a burqa on a stick? Those ingenious Mohammedans!

    1. sales of Burqa on a Rope were underwhelming.

  5. “A monster bestseller, it told the story of a man who awakens in the year 2000 to find Boston transformed into a paradise of collectivist planning.”

    Socialist utopians always sing the same song–someday humanity will escape the terrible oppression of freedom. Someday, individuals will no longer be free to make choices for themselves–and then we can finally be happy.

    1. Now that it’s $CURRENT_YEAR$ I’m having fun going through old cyberpunk stuff and laughing at the predictions.

      I really should post some of that next time we have a slow day.

      Nothing ages as badly as the future.

      1. Someone was talking to me about The Expanse the other day, and she was saying how it’s so realistic.

        I think I know what she means by that. Sometimes people mean it isn’t campy. TNG seemed realistic back in the day compared to the original Star Trek. The original Star Trek seemed campy.

        Now TNG seems campy to me.

        There was that Star Trek movie where it seemed perfectly reasonable that the Enterprise had to go back in time and save the whales. It was so realistic!

        Yeah, in the future either all my worst fears will be realized (that’s the “I told you so” plot), or everything I hate about today will have been overcome (that’s the “come uppance” plot). In either case, the future is only as futuristic as our worst fears and pet peeves of today.

        There are a few exceptions, I guess.

        There probably needs to be a new Dr. Moureau movie.

        1. Star Trek is 90% hand-waving, in every iteration, and what I think of as “science fantasy” (Star Wars being the paragon of the genre). The Expanse is hard sci-fi space opera, with a bit of hardboiled mystery mixed in. Which is fairly common in literature, but a rare bird on film or TV.

          1. Unfortunately hard sci-fi translates the worst to the screen. Want even a brief, half-assed depiction of humans moving in zero gravity? There goes your budget. And there are other problems with infodumps and so on, if you want the audience to be able to follow the action. I think it’s just a limitation of the format.

            1. A realistic space movie might be doable if the zero-g budget comes out of the savings realized by not needing a soundtrack.

              1. Hey, a good orchestral soundtrack can do a lot for a movie. I think the problem is arranging for today’s hot young star(s) to sing newly written songs for the accompanying album, half of which never make it into the screened version anyway.

      2. I’ve been rereading my Gibson collection recently an quite a bit of it cracks me up.

  6. Back in the 90s when I lived in Boulder, one summer the kids thought it would be cool to use walking sticks.

    The police responded by declaring them to be weapons, and arresting (after a good beating) anyone who objected when the police stole them.

    I imagine the same thing would happen if the umbrella trend returned.

    1. I had friends who had their balls busted about swords and whatnot in their cars on the way to the RenFaire. Even though they went all the time, were in full costume, and the fact that we had a NJ and a NY RenFaire at the time wasn’t exactly a secret. Apparently the cops thought they were really going to go kill somebody in a duel or something?

      Your tax dollars at work.

      1. Apparently the cops thought they were really going to go kill somebody in a duel or something?

        Doubt it. More like the cops thought they could get away with the old “Hand it over and I won’t press charges” routine and get themselves some new toys.

        1. One of said friends also lost a pair of escrima sticks or something exactly that way.

          Apparently, nobody needs 30 inches of wood that goes up.

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