A good place to be caught in a rainstorm

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Will it ever stop?

This endless procession of rainy days with accompanying leaden overcast skies is beginning to interfere with outdoor summer activities.

The garden is overrun with weeds, and the grass is reaching kneecap level. Nothing ever really dries out. How can it?

The drippy days have driven people indoors while a certain crankiness seems to have become the pervasive mood.

People wonder when the balmy summer days will arrive or if they'll ever have the opportunity to wear that jaunty Panama sitting on the shelf or the new bikini.

In an article last Saturday, my colleague Frank D. Roylance reported that May was the seventh wettest on record in Baltimore since the Weather Bureau began keeping records in 1871. He also added that 6 1/2 inches of rain had fallen during the month.

Seven days into the new month, and already 0.58 of an inch of rain has doused the metropolitan area.

That's a lot more rain than falls annually in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile, reportedly one of the driest places on Earth, where the average rainfall is 0.3 inches. There are parts of the desert, local experts say, that have not felt a cooling drop of rain in 400 years.

And if The Sun's weather forecast proves to be accurate, then showers will return today and continue to be a threat until Monday.

So, keep on carrying that bumbershoot or consider a permanent move to the Atacama.

Speaking of umbrellas, which have been around roughly 3,500 years, they first made their appearance in Egypt and China where they were used to repel the searing rays of the hot sun. In India, they denoted rank in palaces and courts.

The origin of the word umbrella is umbra from the Latin, which means shadow.

And now let's raise an umbrella to Jonas Hanway, a wealthy 18th-century English trader, author, philanthropist and social reformer. He first encountered the device while on a business trip to Asia, and brought one home to London.

Hanway was in somewhat fragile health, and the umbrella proved useful in keeping him relatively dry.

London cab drivers were suspicious of the umbrella and thought it might put them out of business. They worried that the umbrella would make it possible for its user to walk in the rain rather than ride in a cab.

But Hanway persevered as jeering cab drivers raced by, splashing him with mud to show their displeasure with him and his umbrella.

For 30 years until his death in 1786, Hanway daily strolled the streets of London carrying a carefully furled umbrella, ready for any weather eventuality and proving its practicality.

Umbrellas began to be commercially manufactured in 1787, and early models were somewhat unwieldy when wet as they were made of oiled and waxed silk.

"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," observed The New York Times in 1981.

However, the umbrella, like the bowler hat, has become symbolic of the sartorially turned-out English gentlemen, and in those early years, as if in tribute to the man who popularized its use, was fittingly called a "Hanway."

The first umbrella in Baltimore was seen in 1772 when a shopkeeper took to the streets with the new-fangled contraption.

"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," wrote authors Katherine Morris Lester and Bess Viola Derke in their 1954 book, Accessories of Dress.

Baltimore physicians, however, touted their worth as a medical appliance. In The Chronicles of Baltimore, J. Thomas Scharf writes that in 1772, "the first efforts were made in Baltimore to introduce the use of umbrellas as a defence from the sun and rain. They were then scouted as ridiculous effeminacy. On the other hand, the physicians recommended them to keep off vertigos, epilepsies, sore-eyes, fevers, etc."

The first umbrellas manufactured in Baltimore were made by Francis Beehler, a woodcarver from Heidelberg, Germany, who established a factory in 1882 on East Baltimore Street. It later moved to 204 W. Lexington St., in 1886, which burned in a spectacular 1922 fire that was fueled by thousands and thousands of yards of silk and took the life of a firefighter.

Baltimore later earned the reputation of being the nation's largest manufacturer of umbrellas. In the 1920s, production soared to 2 million annually with a value of $5 million.

Its high-water mark was in 1927 when a city directory listed in addition to the Beehler Umbrella Factory, such makers as Baltimore Umbrella Manufacturing; Brunswick Umbrellas; Samuel Cohn; Walter J. Cornelius; Michael Daneker; Fink & Easter; Polan Katz; Abraham Nowitch; Siegel Rothschild; Gans Brothers; and Minnie Stevens.

Polan Katz, which became the city's largest manufacturer, was founded in 1906 and lasted until 1981, when the business folded.

However, the best umbrella slogan goes to Gans Brothers, founded in 1870: "Born In Baltimore, Raised Everywhere."

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