The ultimate guide to buying & caring for a vintage umbrella.
Note: Scroll down for “Vintage Buying Guide” and “Caring Guide”
History Of The Umbrella
Since the sun rose in the sky, various things have been used to shade a person from its glare. Archaeological records from ancient Rome, India, Greece and Egypt show this to be the case. Derived from the Latin word Umbra, which means “shade,” umbrellas were initially used for keeping the sun off one’s person. Nowadays, a “parasol” is considered the implement of choice for shading oneself from the sun. An “umbrella” is for protection from the rain; however, evidence suggests that ancient Romans also used umbrellas to stop their togas from getting damp. Pretty darn smart, those Romans!
Umbrellas first appeared in England during the Restoration period in the late 1600s. At around 1700, the waterproof umbrella appeared; the first registration of a patent was made in 1786, by John Beale. His patent was for a device made of bone, with a central shaft covered by a canopy that itself was supported by a set of ribs.
The Industrial Revolution saw a surge in umbrella-making, with Britain paving the way in exports to other countries such as the US. And so it was here to stay. It makes sense that Britain took the lead here, considering the ridiculous amount of rain we have every summer!
Over the years, the wooden shafts and bone ribs have given way to steel. Silk canopies have been replaced by more durable fabrics such as PVC or nylon. Other than this, the basic shape and design has changed very little. One company in particular (which, incidentally, has stood the test of time) represented the pinnacle of vintage-umbrella-ownership: Fox Umbrellas. Fox still makes classic gentleman’s umbrellas today. See this amazing page for options, in particular the vintage Fox Paragon umbrella.
In 1868, Mr Thomas Fox opened up his first shop in London’s Fore Street. After a while, and for reasons unknown (although some suggest overwhelming gambling debts), the business was sold to Samuel Dixon and continued down his family line.
The store still stands today and, while it no longer belongs to Fox, it still bares their name. As a grade II listed historic building, whoever currently occupies the shop is legally barred from changing its facade.
While Thomas was busy in London, a different Mr Fox, Samuel to be precise, was busy making steel fish hooks in his home town of Stocksbridge in the UK. A master of metal, he set about making steel ribs to prop up umbrella canopies. While not the first steel ribs (those were US made), they were the best. After honing his skills and taking on his own Son, Henry Fox, as an apprentice in 1913, the Paragon company was born. Mr Fox and his Son continued to make their frames, and even standardised the size of umbrella production.
After World War I, Samuel Dixon’s Son took over the business. The Second World War saw them assist the war effort with the production of parachutes. As a result, nylon became the standard material for umbrella production, after Dixon saw its benefits far outweigh those of the silks that they had previously used.
With such distinguished customers as the British Royal family, John F Kennedy, and Ralph Lauren (not to mention that perfect British gentleman John Steed from the classic British TV series The Avengers), Fox umbrellas really are the Rolls Royce of the brolly.
There are many very good examples of vintage Fox Paragon umbrellas available at antiques, vintage fairs, and online auction sites, particularly EBay. While you may want the history and soul that comes with owning a fine piece of British history, Fox still manufactures umbrellas today in their UK factory, in Croydon at 240 Wickham Street. They stock a stunning range of men’s and ladies classic umbrellas. A classic “stick” brolly costs around £115, while a top-of-the-range version, with hallmarked silver crook, costs around £1,200. Both are available in every colour of the rainbow (pun intended).
In addition to selling new umbrellas, Fox also offers full repair service on all of their umbrellas. Not only can you buy a vintage piece in need of repair at a reduced price, but they can make it like new again for you!
10 Tips For Buying A Vintage Umbrella
- Check that the handle is sturdy and well-attached. Check for repairs; if the handle has been reattached, it may be prone to falling off
- Open the umbrella fully and check that the upper and lower catches function properly and do not stick. Ensure that they retract correctly and do not obstruct the smooth opening and closing on the umbrella. If they are loose, the umbrella can collapse on you while in use.
- Check the stick/shaft. Look for rust, woodworm, or other damage. Imperfections like this can be rubbed with an emery cloth, which removes rust from metal shafts, or painted, if the shaft is wooden.
- Check the ribs and stretchers for wear and deterioration. Open and close the umbrella, looking at each rib in turn, to ensure that each is fully functioning and unbroken. Look for rust. Light rust can be removed with an emery cloth. More corrosion will need a specialist’s attention. Bends can be easily but carefully straightened.
- Feel the fabric of the canopy; is it smooth and flexible? If it is brittle, it may crack and need to be fully replaced.
- Open the umbrella fully and hold it under a bright light to check the canopy for pin holes. One or two, here and there, are fine and to be expected with an umbrella of age. A canopy can be fully replaced by a specialist. Stains may be removed with some warm soapy water and a sponge. Stitching, if undone, can be carefully restitched by hand.
Check the ferrule. Is it secure? Is it missing? Does it need a polish or lick of paint?
- Check the closure fastening, which wraps around the closed umbrella to secure the closed ribs. Often these are broken or missing, but can be easily replaced by attaching a short length of elastic (in the same colour as the umbrella) and a small button. The other end of the elastic should be sewn in a small loop, which can then be wrapped around the umbrella and passed over the button to secure it.
- Check the tip of each rib. Is the canopy still attached? Often these come loose, but can be easily reattached with a needle and thread, replicating how the others are attached.
- Does it feel right in your hand? Can you become friends with your new umbrella? Look after it, and it will look after you.
Guide To Caring For Your Umbrella
- Do not take your umbrella out in very strong winds or lightning storms. In very strong winds, rain does not fall vertically, as the wind “drives” the rain at an angle. No umbrella will protect you in these types of conditions. The wind may also damage the umbrella, or it could be whipped from your hand! Plus, what fool ventures from the warmth of their home on a rainy, stormy night? Pour a brand, pop on some Miles Davis, and put your feet up, man!
- Always open the umbrella pointing downwards, lift the ribs slightly, and slide the umbrella open.
- Small or light stains can be removed with warm soapy water.
- After use, make sure you leave your umbrella open to dry (whenever possible).
- Do not allow water on the underside of your umbrella and then close it, this will eventually cause rust.
- Never leave your umbrella to dry on a radiator; “naturally” air drying is best.
- Never leave your umbrella wet and creased up; this will eventually cause damage to the fabric of the umbrella, and will cause rust on the steel frame.
- Do not leave the umbrella in prolonged sunlight, i.e. in a hall stand against a window, as this will cause the fabric to fade.
- When the umbrella is completely dry, it should be furled carefully. Hold the handle and gently pull out any fabric that has been caught in the ribs when closing it down. Then, lightly move your hand from the top of the umbrella in a circular motion, smoothing the fabric without twisting the ribs over each other. The “E” Band can then be fastened.
- While you may be tempted to use your umbrella as a walking stick, extensive use in this fashion will damage the ferrule, resulting in a replacement. But you’ll look most dandy doing so!
- A good umbrella is for life! Never leave it on a bus or a train or lend it to anyone, even your best friend!