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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

8 Mind-Expanding Facts About Umbrellas

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In some parts of the world, an umbrella is practically a necessity. Whether it’s for rain or sun or singin’ in the rain, here are eight facts about the history of those wire and fabric contraptions that keep your head dry during a rainstorm.

1. YOU CAN THANK THE SUN FOR THE WORD UMBRELLA.

While people today associate umbrellas with rain, the roots of the word have to do with shade from the sun—umbrella stems from the Latin umbra for “shade, shadow.” But soon after the word appeared in English (and in England’s less-than-sunny weather), umbrella morphed from being the term for something that shaded you from the sun to something that kept off rain.

2. UMBRELLAS WERE INVENTED IN CHINA.

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Historical excavations suggest that the Chinese were the first to create a collapsible fabric dome around the year 21 CE (at the latest), when rulers were interested in having some sort of shade covering for their carriages. The umbrella was exported abroad thanks to the Silk Road, first to Japan and Korea, then across Europe and Asia. The usage of parasols and umbrellas flourished during the Roman Empire, died down during the Middle Ages, and began to grow in popularity again during the Renaissance.

3. UMBRELLAS WERE ONCE USED SOLELY BY WOMEN.

Umbrellas were the ancient equivalent of donning a pair of high heels—only women would use them, and they were a blatant symbol of femininity. In fact, in many ancient cultures, men brandishing umbrellas was a sign of effeminacy. And umbrellas were often associated with high fashion and wealth. It wasn’t until the mid 18th-century, when the founder of English Magdalen Hospital was publicly and frequently seen using an umbrella, that the connection between femininity and umbrellas disappeared

4. THE 19TH CENTURY WAS PROBABLY THE MOST FRUITFUL PERIOD IN UMBRELLA INNOVATION.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you look at old paintings of umbrellas, you’ll notice that they all look the same as they do today. In fact, a 1270 CE Song Dynasty painting features what is perhaps the earliest art depiction of a collapsible umbrella and it looks basically the same as what we flip out in a downpour. 

But there have been some improvements, and an intense spike in umbrella innovation occurred in the 1800s. One thing that came out of this spurt of creativity was the button that allows the umbrella to automatically inflate or collapse, an innovation that proved remarkably sturdy in withstanding the test of time. But it wasn’t until 1928 when Hans Haupt—who suffered from a war injury that inspired a cane-umbrella combination—created an umbrella that folded neatly into itself. 

5. THE U.S. PATENT OFFICE IS DELUGED WITH DESIGNS FOR BETTER UMBRELLAS.

As author Susan Orlean wrote in a New Yorker piece on modern renderings of the humble umbrella, they are “so ordinary that everyone thinks about them, and, because they’re relatively simple, you don’t need an advanced degree to imagine a way to redesign them, but it’s difficult to come up with an umbrella idea that hasn’t already been done.” 

Orlean goes on to describe how the United States Patent Office has seen more than 3000 plans for redesigning the umbrella, from adding a pet leash to attempts at creating a flying umbrella. But none have really stuck. Today, a Google search of the US Patent Office yields 120,000 entries with the word “umbrella,” including an automated sun tracking umbrella, dog umbrella, umbrella with interchangeable tops, mister-equipped umbrella system, and many more. 

6. ONE CITY IN CHINA PRODUCES A LARGE CHUNK OF THE WORLD’S UMBRELLAS.

Songxia has been described as the umbrella capitol of the world, and for good reason: According to local estimates, about half a billion umbrellas, or 30% of China’s production, are made here, supplied by more than 1000 factories. One single worker makes about 300 umbrellas a day. The city’s factories, which lie two hours south of Shanghai, make “rain umbrellas, golf umbrellas, beach umbrellas, folding umbrellas, promotional umbrellas, mini umbrellas, kids umbrellas, fashion umbrellas, parasol umbrellas, patio umbrellas, clear umbrellas, wedding umbrellas, market umbrellas, etc.” That’s a lot of umbrellas!

7. THE UMBRELLA COVER MUSEUM IN MAINE BOASTS THE LARGEST COLLECTION OF UMBRELLA COVERS IN THE WORLD. 

You know those things your umbrella comes inside of? Those nylon sleeves that are supposed to protect it from ruining anything else in your bag but that you inevitably lose? Well, there’s an entire museum devoted to umbrella covers. Nancy Hoffman is the curator and director of the Umbrella Cover Museum on Peaks Island in Maine, a 20 minute ferry ride away from Portland. Hoffman started her collection when she found a few stray umbrella sheaths in her house and stole another one from a department store, giving birth to her collection, which now numbers over 700.

8. A MYSTERIOUS “UMBRELLA MAN” WAS PRESENT AT JFK’S ASSASSINATION.

November 22, 1963, was a clear, balmy day, perfect for a drive with the top down in a convertible. But shortly after noon in Dallas, as President John F. Kennedy’s car drove past Dealey Plaza, a man opened his umbrella and waved it from east to west. Moments later, a shower of gunshots fell from the sky and killed the 35th president of the United States. Afterward, the man—who would later become known as the “Umbrella Man” and was the subject of a recent New York Times “op-doc”—sat down before leaving and heading toward the Texas School Book Depository.

Why did he have an umbrella? Was he signaling the assassin(s)? Did he have a gun attached to the umbrella that delivered the fatal wounds? These questions were debated for years among the press and conspiracy theorists alike, but never quite answered until Louie Steven Witt appeared in front of the House Select Committee on Assassinations a decade later to testify about his umbrella, claiming he’d not only been unaware of the brouhaha but also that he was simply heckling the president for his father’s role in working with former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in appeasing Adolf Hitler before World War II (Chamberlain’s fashion accessory of choice was a black umbrella). Of course, some conspiracy theorists don’t accept that explanation, and the debate over the Umbrella Man keeps on humming. 

And it’s not the only umbrella that may or may not be involved in an assassination: Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was stabbed with an umbrella whose tip lodged the poison ricin into the man’s thigh, killing him in a matter of days. 

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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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