Ernest Ackerman stood outside on a staircase. A black umbrella, clasped in his right hand and leaning against his shoulder, unfurled behind him. But, as you might notice, it wasn’t raining.
From ancient Egypt until fairly recently, umbrellas were mainly used by royalty or the affluent as protection from rain or sun. These luxury accessories put class and respectability on display, much like hats. Sunshades were valuable and personal enough that thieves took them and newspapers reported their loss. In 1914, a reporter noted that a thief stole an umbrella out of the House office of Maryland Representative Charles Coady.
Given the significance and utility of the umbrella, it’s no wonder that some Members of Congress never left home without one. One such sunshade carrier was Albert Burleson, a Representative from Texas in the early 1900s who later became Postmaster General. Burleson was so closely associated with his umbrella that one day, when he failed to carry it while walking to the White House, his transgression made the newspapers. With all that use, his parasol ended up worse for the wear after he left the House. In 1917, the Los Angeles Times described it as “disreputable-looking,” going on to explain that the “closed umbrella has a dingy green cover and a crooked handle and bulges out at the bottom as if a peck of greens or a dressed chicken were concealed within.”
Burleson’s brolly stood out in the dry climate of his home district. He returned to Austin, Texas, during an extended drought—and of course, he brought his umbrella. After seeing him, passers-by immediately looked up at the cloudless sky in confusion. Burleson finally admitted why he always carried around an umbrella: for protection against bullies, not from rain. As a young man, he suffered from gout, but was reluctant to use a cane. “In those days a young man who carried a cane in Austin was likely as not to invite a shot from some cow-boy’s pistol, or at least he would be the subject of open ridicule,” he told a reporter. “In order to avoid these things I started to carry an umbrella, using it instead of a cane.”
Like Burleson, Representative Ernest Ackerman of New Jersey was noted for his canopy companion. As a young man in 1880, Ackerman traveled to London with a friend. Each bought a $5 umbrella (equal to approximately $120 today) from Bond’s on Piccadilly. As they left the shop, the friend wagered that he would keep his shade longer than Ackerman. Two weeks later, the friend had already lost both the brolly and the bet.
Ackerman hung on to his umbrella, but only started carrying it around constantly after a near-death experience 15 years later. Badly soaked by rain in Trenton, New Jersey, he contracted pneumonia and barely recovered. “Never since then has Mr. Ackerman got caught off his rain guard. The umbrella is the answer,” the Baltimore Sun explained.
By the time he entered Congress, the well-heeled and well-traveled Ackerman had already owned his sunshade for around 39 years. As he crossed the globe, he brought his umbrella, which he re-covered and repaired often. By 1930, Ackerman had crossed the ocean with it 104 times, traveled approximately 740,000 miles with it, and planned to carry it 1,000,000 miles. He carved notches in the handle to record the places the umbrella had been, and added small, silver decorations to show significant world events the shade had experienced. When Ackerman died in 1931, his Washington Post obituary included a special feature about his umbrella.
As the 1930s progressed, mass-produced versions with cheaper materials made umbrellas more available to the middle class. The New York Times glumly noted in 1930 that the sunshade “is now to be made too cheap to be kept.” Although the status of the brolly has changed over time, it still serves an important protective function for dreary days and sudden showers. “Shucks, any fool can carry an umbrella when it’s raining,” Burleson said. “It takes a wise man to carry one when it’s clear.”
Sources: Marion Rankine, Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature (London: Melville House UK, 2017); Baltimore Sun, 27 October 1914, 16 December 1928, and 19 October 1931; Los Angeles Times, 26 August 1917 and 12 November 1917; New York Times, 12 September 1925 and 23 March 1930; Chicago Daily Tribune, 18 July 1920; Washington Post, 8 June 1930 and 19 October 1931; and Boston Globe, 25 November 1937.Follow @USHouseHistory