Question: Did you know that America’s first umbrellas were produced in Baltimore?
It’s true! Baltimore can lay claim to the nation’s first umbrella factory, established by William Beehler in 1828. The company’s motto: “Born in Baltimore, raised everywhere.”
According to Katherine Morris Lester and Bess Viola Derke in ”Accessories of Dress” (Charles A. Bennett Company, 1954), the umbrella was ”perpetually rediscovered” in England, ”heard of in the 17th century and early in the 18th, and yet Jonas Hanway, who died in 1786, has the reputation of having introduced the umbrella into England,” which he had seen in the East. He was criticized ”for defying the heavenly purpose of rain, which obviously was to make people wet.”
Despite such accusations of sacrilege, umbrella manufacture began in England in 1787. Then acorns were widely used decorations, because of an old superstition that oak trees were sacred to the god of thunder. Elaborate handles were fashioned of rare woods, leather, ivory and precious metals, even encrusted with jewels.
Although in basic form umbrellas have changed little over time, advances have been made in folding mechanisms, ribs and fabric coverings. In 1806 the uncovered whalebone frame weighed 10 pounds. By 1826 this was down to one and a half pounds, and in 1852 whalebone was replaced by a frame made of steel. Covers were of oiled and waxed silk and linen, with oiled paper common in the Far East then as now.
In our country, when a Baltimore shopkeeper ventured out with the first umbrella seen in America in 1772, the Lester and Derke book recounts, ”pedestrians stood transfixed, women were frightened, horses ran away, and naughty children threw stones. Finally the town watch was called out to quiet the disturbance.”