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8 Mind-Expanding Facts About Umbrellas

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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.

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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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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
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When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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