Why are Seattleites anti-umbrella?

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By Charla Bear

A lot of people in the “Rain City” take pride in the fact that “real” Seattleites don’t carry umbrellas. But, I walk around town with a portable roof over my head. 

The result? I stay dry, my hair doesn’t get tousled, and I can use my iPhone while I wait for the bus. I also get dirty looks.

Granted, my umbrella isn’t small. I actually call it my yurt. That might have a little to do with it, but the reality is this region is anti-umbrella.

Why? Is it weather denial? Affinity for wet jeans? An attachment to rain jackets?    

 

Gear heads

Don Patterson, of Bothell, calls his rainy day outfit-of-choice “typical Seattle wear:”

“Today I’m going with a little 300 weight fleece underneath my GORE-TEX outer shell.”

He says he doesn’t own an umbrella, never has – even though he’s a “relocated Californian.” To him, it’s just not the right piece of gear for the weather. 

“It’s windy here quite often,” he says. “So, many times, the wind causes the umbrellas to turn inside out, making the folks quite fun to watch, but kind of ineffective.’

 

Weather realities

Let’s face facts, though. It definitely rains here. And often. 

According to Komo News, Seattle ranks in the top five nationally with 226 cloudy days per year – behind Anchorage, Forks, Astoria and Olympia. And, we're in the top 20 with 140 days of measurable rain.

Yet, MJ McDermott, meteorologist for Q13 Fox, says our reputation for rain is a bit misleading.

“We just don’t get what we call that convective rainfall,” she says, “the convective precipitation where you get the big gigantic clouds that just drive rain into you. We get that stratus, that low lying gray cloud that just goes ‘puff.’” 

Charlie Procknow teases Kelli Geiger about pulling out her umbrella on a typical winter day in Seattle. It was barely drizzling.  Photo by Charla BearIn fact, Seattle only gets about 37 inches of rain per year. As San Francisco-based WeatherBill, Inc. found, these are the cities with the heaviest rainfall:

  • Mobile, AL.: 67 inches average annual
  • Pensacola, FL: 65 inches average annual   
  • New Orleans, LA: 64 inches average annual
  • West Palm Beach, FL.: 63 inches average annual   
  • Lafayette, LA: 62 inches average annual
  • Baton Rouge, LA: 62 inches average annual   
  • Miami, FL: 62 inches average annual
  • Port Arthur, TX: 61 inches average annual
  • Tallahassee, FL: 61 inches average annual
  • Lake Charles, LA: 58 inches average annual

So, McDermott hardly ever recommends an umbrella. Usually, she just suggests a hooded jacket.

“In fact, I had a producer once who came from Chicago who said, stop saying hooded jacket, it’s an umbrella,” she recalls. “And I said, have you walked around downtown Seattle? Have you seen anyone with an umbrella?” 

 

Same weather, different culture

The quantity of rain can’t be the only reason people in the Puget Sound don’t carry umbrellas. I mean, London has similar weather and people there use umbrellas. Besides, plenty of locals here don’t like to get wet.

“I think rain is black girl’s kryptonite,” says Ziggy Toufessa, of Seattle.  

She wears a pony tail and a floral headband, but a few drops can still annihilate her hair. Frizzy locks are not a good look for a hostess at an upscale restaurant downtown.

Yet even she refuses to buy an umbrella.  

“It’s the culture,” she says. “Why do I buy two cups of coffee everyday when I can make it myself. I don’t know, I just do it.”

 

History of Seattle’s anti-umbrella attitude

Shunning umbrellas has been part of the region’s history for a long time.

In the winter of 1851, the Denny party sailed ashore at Alki Point, in what’s now West Seattle. One of the first things they encountered was rain, coming down in sheets, says Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).

He describes a drawing based on the settlers’ stories. It shows women cowering under bonnets and blankets.

“What’s missing from this tableau, is something that was available elsewhere in the US, and that’s umbrellas,” he says.

Besides, back then they were primarily used as parasols for the sun. The word umbrella stems from “umbra,” Latin for “shade” or “shadow.  

 

Attempts to make umbrellas fashionable

Over the years, people have tried to champion the umbrella in the Northwest. In the late 1800s, there was Robert Patton, who everybody called, “The Umbrella Man.”  

“He wore an umbrella as a hat, everyday of the year, regardless of the weather and became quite a recognized figure around town,” Garfield says.

So well known, The Seattle Times featured a caricature of him next to the paper’s weather forecast. 

Still, umbrellas didn’t catch on.

Maybe they just don’t work with our sense of style.

Garfield says MOHAI has done exhibits on Seattle’s fashion history, but they’ve been very short exhibits.

“In Seattle, maybe we don’t have as much need to keep our hair dry or our clothes dry because we haven’t put quite as much thought into that as other people in other cities,” he says. “Going out and getting a little bit wet and a little mussed-up with the wind is not such a terrible thing in Seattle because the people who are going to see you at the other end are probably looking exactly the same way.”

 

Umbrellas are good for something

So, if people in the Puget Sound don’t use umbrellas for weather, accessories or, seemingly, anything else, how does a store that sells nothing but umbrellas survive here?

At Bella Umbrella, in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, owner Jodelle Egbert says she sells about 30,000 umbrellas a year. About two-thirds of them are purchased online, though.   

One of her in-person customers is Stephanie Carr. She lights up when she sees a black and white pagoda model with a purple handle.

Of course, since she’s a local, it’s not for her. It’s for her mom.

“My mom’s from the east coast,” she says. “She’s not a Seattle person.”

So perhaps people in the Puget Sound don’t rule out umbrellas entirely.  Apparently, they’re great as gifts for out-of-state wimps.

 


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