How should you stay dry?
I didn't like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward when I read it 16 years ago, but I think of it every time it rains. The 1888 novel depicts a Utopian Boston in the year 2000 where rain is inconsequential: At first raindrop, canopies roll out of buildings, turning sidewalks into hallways, rendering umbrellas extinct.
Unfortunately, we don't live in a Utopia; we live with umbrellas. The word umbrella comes from the Latin word "umbra," which means "shade" or "shadow." Used as sun shades in ancient times, they became popular as rain protection in the 1700s and have since pushed their way into high culture, low culture, and espionage. While Mary Poppins and Christo used them to magical effect—Poppins to fly and Christo to decorate valleys in Japan and California—they've also been used for more sinister purposes. The 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only depicts an umbrella with clawlike spikes that protrude from the tips of the canopy. Altered umbrellas are not only the stuff of fiction. In 1978, an umbrella was used to shoot a poisonous pellet into the leg of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov. The world's most-analyzed umbrella may be the one connected to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As Kennedy was shot, a man standing nearby, later known as Umbrella Man, opened his umbrella and pumped it up and down, though nary a raindrop was in sight. It's no wonder the Republican National Convention prohibited umbrellas last fall.
Of course, most users seek rain protection, not a weapon. For that, they have a panoply of choices, from cell-phone-sized umbrellas, which succumb more easily to rain and wind, to golf umbrellas, which provide good coverage, but are cumbersome and a nuisance to fellow pedestrians. Since there's no perfect umbrella, one must ask, is a fancy, expensive umbrella an "investment for a rainy day"? Or, like a pirated DVD, will a $3 Chinatown umbrella do the trick? I decided to find out.
1) Portability(10 possible points): Does a "pocket-sized" umbrella really fit in your pocket? What about your purse? Does it have a comfortable wrist strap? Is the handle easy to grasp? Is the umbrella so big you hit walls, stairs, or other pedestrians? Can you hold grocery bags, a purse, find your keys, open the door, and hold the umbrella?
2) Functionality(10 possible points): Does the umbrella open simply and quickly? Are the open/close functions logical or confusing? Does it close effortlessly, or does closure require a maneuver akin to the Heimlich?
3) Strength(10 possible points): For the ultimate wind test, I took my umbrellas for a spin on the Staten Island Ferry. There, I tested how quickly (and if) they turned inside out and how promptly they regained their composure. I also tested to see if they would break like the myriad umbrellas left in New York City gutters after a storm.
4) General Mobility (10 possible points): How well does the umbrella play with others? Can you jockey your way through a crowd? Does it open like it's attacking someone? Can you get in and out of buildings, and in and out of your car?
5) Aesthetics(10 possible points): Most of the umbrellas I tested were basic black. Nonetheless, aesthetic differences abound. Some have cheap handles, others bunch up when folded; some are admired by passers-by, others elicit snickers.
6) Effectiveness(10 possible points): Most importantly: Does the umbrella keep you dry? Or is it too small to provide any protection? If it has vents that let the wind escape, do those allow water in?
Laura Shin is a writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.