I know, what could be plainer than an umbrella? Five bucks and you can grab one on any street corner when the first drizzle starts and if the wind blows it inside out there is a trash can on the next corner. Could you imagine yourself paying over one hundred dollars for one? I doubt it, but that is due to today’s perception of the umbrella as a disposable item. You just want something that covers your head and fits in your pocket – especially if you live in drier climates that rarely see clouds or precipitation. And yet, the umbrella – the one you imagine when thinking of stodgy Englishmen in bowler hats – is an artisanal masterpiece and one that if kept properly will last you a lifetime. In the end you will probably spend less than if you keep buying the five dollar one on the street corner.
Umbrellas have been around for a long time and many versions have been found and cited by historians in the farthest corners of the globe. The steel ribbed Paragon umbrella frame, the one from which most modern umbrellas are modeled was attributed to the British industrialist, Samuel Fox, in 1852. His Fox Umbrella Frames company was established in 1842 in Sheffield and managed to survive until a few years ago when all the equipment was shipped off to China. As most of you can probably guess China, and in particular its Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, is now the largest producer of umbrellas in the world. Certainly, as did the Japanese with electronics, the Chinese will in the not so distant future create state of the art items that most of us will not be able to afford. I am not sure it will be in the umbrella industry, though, and for now it is still in London that you will find the artisanal masterpieces I mentioned earlier. In particular, James, Smith & Sons, will build you a custom length umbrella from a single piece of wood. You can also get the traditional “Fox Frame” with a variety of crook or sculpted handles. If you are more pragmatic and cannot imagine going through all that trouble for such a simple object then certainly you can find some elegant and much more affordable solutions from Totes and others stateside, much like buying the poster of the painting you like at the museum gift shop.