Dec. 5, 2020Rainy day in Philly, 6°C. Walking through the cobblestone streets of Society Hill lined with its rows of Georgian townhouses transports me to earlier times. Would the grey overcast have looked the same to Madison from his stately home on Spruce Street? Did the same moist chill of early winter's morning seep into the cotton coats of George Washington's black and mulatto slaves as they quietly made their way in and out of the city unseen to Mount Vernon, obeying their master's shrewd design to bypass the state's manumission laws and keep them enslaved on free soil?
Holding a folded fluorescent-green polyester umbrella in one hand, I wonder how out-of-place it might have appeared in their time. Or perhaps not. After all, it was in the dying decades of the eighteenth century that the umbrella increasingly became part of urban life in European metropoles and their colonies. Its identical twin, the parasol, was of course long-established as a symbol of status, exoticism, and later femininity. Rain- and sun-guards (in a literal sense) were indistinguishable for a long time. In 1705, the Parisian purse-maker Jean Marius received a royal 'patent' from Louis XIV for a foldable parapluie/parasol valid for five-years and renewable thereafter. It took a while for the invention to take off, however, due to social norms. The wealthy avoided the rain in their carriages while the poor weathered it on their head and shoulders. If one could not afford a carriage, the snobility of Paris and London snorted, one might as well be soaked in rain. The umbrella was thus initially perceived as too plebian for high society. Those perceptions changed, however, and by the 1770s, the Reverend Jacob Duché, rector of Philadelphia's Christ Church (visible just outside my apartment window as I write), was often seen carrying around an oiled-linen umbrella to keep himself dry.