Secret Supper is June 17th. Get your tickets before they sell out!

Retro Baltimore: Back when Baltimore was umbrella capital of the world

I must have been struck by an umbrella curse. Lately, every single umbrella I buy flips inside out at the slightest gust of wind, rendering it an upside down black plastic bucket. I struggle to hold it the opposite way until the breeze slaps it back into shape, but it inevitably flips out again. This cycle continues for as long as my walk may be -- bucket, umbrella, bucket, umbrella.

The first umbrella that appeared in Baltimore must have appeared even more bizarre: It caused a riot.

To be clear, the umbrella has long been intended to make an impression. In ancient Greece, Persia, India, Egypt and Iraq, elite carried parasols to protect them from the sun -- or better yet, they had servants carry them for them. It was a total status symbol.

In the 11th century B.C., Chinese Mandarins could be judged by whether a double- or triple-decker red silk umbrella was held over them. The emperor alone got to use a four-level umbrella.

Legend has it that the first umbrella raised in the United States was opened in Baltimore in 1772. Depending on the source, some guy either bought it from a ship in the harbor, or had just returned from travels in India with a parasol as his souvenir.

When he carried it on the streets of Baltimore, horses were spooked. Women ran in horror. Children threw stones. “He was mobbed and his umbrella torn to shreds,” The Chicago Tribune claimed in 1931.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Baltimore eventually became the world’s leader in umbrella manufacturing. A German immigrant named Francis L. Beehler opened an umbrella factory downtown in 1828, the nation’s first. Others followed suit: Gans Brothers, whose ingenious slogan was “born in Baltimore, raised everywhere.” Their luxurious, often frilled and very stylish wares traveled to Europe and the Philippines. Yet another company, Polan Katz & Co., would become one of the largest manufacturers in the world.

By 1922, a Sun headline declared: “BALTIMORE CENTER OF UMBRELLA TRADE.” The city was manufacturing around 2 million umbrellas each year, produced from a variety of fabrics, often with finely crafted handles.

“There was a time when the umbrella was a joke, the object of derision,” the author wrote. But those days were over. “The umbrella of today is not only a necessity but a thing of beauty.”

In addition to umbrella making, the city had its share of umbrella menders -- vagabonds who wandered the streets, fixing broken down parasols. (Union leader Eugene V. Debs wrote an essay about an encounter with an umbrella mender who boasted that he never once scabbed during a strike. He was, in Debs’ eyes, a hero.)

Like the rest of the city’s dry goods manufacturing, umbrella making eventually died out. Polan Katz & Co. shuttered in 1981. The city is no longer Umbrella Capital of the World. Today, that distinction is probably held by Songxia, China, a city that produces half a billion umbrellas each year -- or 250 times Baltimore’s output in the 1920s.

Those curious to know more about Baltimore’s run as the Umbrella Capital of the World can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad