1942: The simple artistry of the lowly umbrella
Ah, the poor umbrella. Drab, brought forth with a curse on dreary, wet days. Even the name is rather ugly, the “u” hacked up from the back of the throat before the tongue is forced to stumble over unlovely consonants. It is so unlike its flashy and colorful sibling, the poetically named parasol, gaily twirled over the shoulders of young women on sunny days.
And so it was until 1952, when a young man from East Liberty did the unthinkable. Gene Kelly grabbed a mundane black umbrella in the movie “Singing in the Rain” and turned it into a dance partner possessed of stunning grace, elegance and playfulness.
Most of us, though, simply use the device to stay dry.
Oddly, a file folder named “Umbrellas” resides in our archive. It contains an eclectic set of images. The most striking shows a man holding an umbrella at a train station glistening on a raining night. It’s a haunting and mysterious picture. We have no idea where it was taken. Written in pencil on the back of the print is the year: 1942.
Another picture is equally mysterious. In this one, a sea of people protected by umbrellas occupies what appears to be a stadium. Nothing is written on the back of the print. We’re guessing the picture was taken in the 1930s. One staffer suggested the location may be the South Park Fairgrounds, but we’re uncertain. A Digs reader suggested Pitt Stadium, so we’ll go with that.
In 1945, The Pittsburgh Press published a story about an “umbrella doctor” named Sam Cohen, who had a shop on Sixth Avenue. Accompanying the story was picture of Mr. Cohen sitting at a sewing machine. A woman behind him brandishes a massive and obviously damaged umbrella. In those days, people were sentimental about their ribbed canopies. Mr. Cohen said they were often passed down from generation to generation. He claimed to repair about 10,000 each year.
Finally, we found a picture from 1979 showing umbrella-carrying pedestrians at a Downtown intersection. The image is shot from above by Darrell Sapp, a PG staffer who continues to delight readers with his dramatic photographs of the city. Like Mr. Kelly, Mr. Sapp used the lowly umbrella to create a form of art. Hmmmm. Now we’re wondering if our Mr. Sapp can dance.