Who invented the cocktail umbrella?

I began discussing the umbrella yesterday obliquely but then remembered that the words around it were not the only issue. The umbrella itself has it’s own interesting – if rather unexplored history.

It has been around for ages, the umbrella. At least four thousand years. Originally they were made of paper and were used to keep the sun off – more of which later. But then some bright spark in China added wax and lacquer to the paper inventing the first umbrella proper.

It didn’t arrive in the west until the 17 hundreds. But it was considered only necessary if you were a woman and it was considered bad form to require one if you were a man.

In fact a similar phenomenon occurred when supermarkets introduced the shopping trolley. They were almost never used by men because they wanted to show that they were manly enough (read: stupid enough) to carry all of their items in the shopping baskets.

Then came a man called Jonas Hanway. He dared to use an umbrella in public in English Society. But what did he care about English social mores? He was from Persia and like any sensible person did not thing getting wet made him look stylish.

He used his umbrella for thirty years to great effect. It was clearly such a good idea that it made it acceptable for other men to use them too. In fact he was so associated with the trend that a common nickname for the umbrella was a “Hanway”.

In 1852 Samuel Fox decided he need to do something with all the excess stock of steel that had been shaped to put in lady’s corsets but hadn’t been sold. So he decided to put them in umbrellas instead.

And that is the moment that me and umbrellas parted ways forever. By having steel in them umbrellas suddenly became lethal objects, carried at eye height on the busy city streets. They are, in many ways, a menace.

But despite my own personal differences with the umbrella it went from strength to strength.

Just over a century later we had the compact umbrella and, most puzzling of all, the umbrella in our cocktails.

What on earth is that doing there? Who invented the cocktail umbrella?

Well here’s a bit of a shock to the system. Nobody knows.

There are a lot of theories about the cocktail umbrella but very few answers. It seems clear the it’s more aimed as a parasol rather than umbrella as it’s made of paper. So it harks right back to the origins of the parasol. I’m not sure I would trust one of those little things to keep rain out of my drink. For that matter even if they are meant as a parasol. I’m not sure they are protecting the drink from getting a sun tan either.

In reality the idea of the cocktail was to bring the image of the beach bar to the drink. So the fruit is representing the fruit trees, as are the little trees that you sometimes get, the sparklers – the candles, and the parasols – the parasols on each table. In fact when you look at it this way the parasols are the bit that makes the most sense.

So what is the future for umbrellas? Well a young man called Richard Lawson has developed a device called a SPLU (SPring Loaded Umbrella). It’s got no sharp edges to poke people with, when it’s folded up it fits in the palm of your hand, and it doesn’t fall apart in strong winds. It’s pretty snazzy. And he’s in talks with Nike who have the power to make this thing actually happen.

But if that’s not the kind of technological advance you’re looking for then how about this:

Yes, that really is a hands free umbrella – velcro is a wonderful thing.

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