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Victorian Umbrella Defense Surpassed Perilous Hatpins

As women ventured into the world without escorts, fashionable hatpins doubled as excellent weapons to discourage unwanted advances from men. But hatpins had their limitations. For one thing, a woman had to wait until her assailant was mere inches away to strike. Hatpins grew increasingly longer and more dangerous as women honed their self-defense skills. Laws were eventually enacted to stop the bloodshed. Still, crime was on the rise and concealed weapons were illegal. As a result, women and men alike embraced a multitude of everyday items for protection. Victorian umbrella defense became a favorite in America and Europe.

Literature of the day referred to a proliferation of mashers, ruffians, and hooligans on the street. But serious assaults and murder rates were on the rise as well. Self-defense classes in many modalities were gaining popularity as women abandoned the myth of men as their protectors. From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, many women participated in jujitsu, boxing, fencing, cane techniques and the ever popular-Victorian umbrella defense. Classes were on the rise and women were teaching other women how to be self-sufficient.

Magazine and newspaper articles on the latest and greatest techniques were “trending.” Female instructors became influencers, leading other women to safety and a growing sense of comfort in their independence. Many of the techniques like Victorian Umbrella Defense resonated with women and men alike because they were not about overpowering an assailant with force. Instead, they taught people to skillfully yield to an opponent’s movements using his or her weight and strength to their favor.

Following is a sampling of articles showcasing trendy fighting techniques including the Victorian Umbrella Defense.

Victorian Umbrella Defense: San Francisco, The Call, Sunday, Nov. 6, 1903

Ladies of the English Aristocracy Organize For Protection Against Hoodlums With The Simple Parasol As Their Weapon

LONDON, Nov. 7. — For some unexplained reason there has been a great Interest in What London
folk call “hooliganism.” …With a ratio of twenty hooligans to one bobby, quite a bit of law-breaking might be done.. a number of solitary wayfarers have been attacked and robbed and two or three have been murdered —all of which was most disconcerting to the independent English woman, who has taken to going on bicycle rides into the country by herself and to walking about the city streets in the daytime without the chaperone who was considered so
necessary a few years ago. Lady June had her purse wrenched from her recently by a hooligan in the fashionable
Kensington district of London, and Lady Mary Sackville was robbed of her bag and chatelaine not long ago by a rough, who assaulted her and decamped. Many other attacks of the sort have been made on less famous folk.
Parasol: The Weapon (Invincible In Three Months)
In consequence of this state of affairs it occurred to a young French woman, the wife of the famous French swordsman, Pierre Vigny, to undertake the instruction of Englishwomen in the art of self-defense with a parasol or walking stick, according to a system devised by her gallant husband, who has devoted years to its perfection. It may best be described as a mixture of the various methods of self-defense practiced in England, France, Germany and Japan. Many of the passes, thrusts and wards used in fencing are comprised in it.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 26, 1908

The following techniques were taught at the Philadelphia Institute of Physical Culture, 1908. Self-defense classes were advertised in the 1890s.

How to maim, disable or even kill a two-legged brute with an umbrella. This is the brief description of a course of instruction just begun in a Philadelphia school of Physical culture. The necessity for such teaching grows out of the constantly recurring attacks on women by tramps and hoodlums, the number of such outrages growing as the streets and byways become overrun with men whose worst instincts are uppermost through inferred idleness.

The ever-increasing number of women, too, who are compelled to join the army of wage earners, or do so from choice, brings into the streets, sometimes late at night, girls who have no protection but their own feeble physical powers. The hatpin has been named as the natural weapon of a woman attacked in the street, and it has its value in skilled hands, but the umbrella is far superior to it in many ways.

With the modern umbrella, which is not a slender wooden stick, but a wire rod, as deadly almost as a rapier, the girl who must rely upon her own arm to protect herself from attack in the street is armed with a weapon, the terrible nature of which few realize. But she must learn how to use it skillfully and quickly so as to put a quietus at once upon her opponent’s dream of easy conquest.

The classes at the physical culture establishment referred to are especially organized to make women competent to kill if necessary the man who attacks her while she is armed with an umbrella.

There is, it seems, such a thing as a solar plexus blow with an umbrella that will place the strongest man hors de combat. But the most deadly blow of all is one delivered at the neck of an opponent, driving the sharp steel ferrule straight for the spot an inch or so below the Adam’s apple. In one of the accompanying photographs, posed especially for this paper at the establishment referred to, this blow is illustrated and the proper way to hold the umbrella so as to impart to the blow the maximum amount of force is shown.

The umbrella should be held in both hands and driven forward with the full weight of the body following it. If the blow lands on the right spot, that is on the neck, past below the apple, it is very likely to make the party attacked a subject for the morgue. The umbrella could be driven right into his neck with the force exerted by even a delicate girl if her weight follows the blow.

The girls who attend this new self-defense class are taught to jab at the eyes of a man who attacks them. All is fair in a case of this kind, for the man who attacks an unprotected woman in the street is deserving of no pity. The girls are also taught to defend themselves against the attacks of two men who come at them simultaneously, stabbing at the face or neck of the nearest and giving the other a back handled blow with the butt. Apart from the usefulness of teaching a girl how to take care of herself if attacked, it may be said that the students derive great benefit from the exercise they go through in the daily drill  .

A variation of the blow at the neck is taught. The position is shown in one of the photographs. The girl attacked steps back quickly, grasps the umbrella in both hands, one hand near the handle, the other about a foot from the end, and drives full force, bayonet fashion, at the stomach of her enemy. If this blow, deftly delivered, does not cause a man to become an inmate of an hospital ward fro several weeks following its delivery then the student has not learned the lesson taught at the umbrella defense class. Even a light blow given as it is taught with the impetus of a quick step forward and the weight of the body thrown into a drive for the thug’s solar plexus is pretty sure to leave him gasping and helpless, while the same blow, given with the full power of a fairly strong girl, will probably result in driving the steel rod into the man’s body, in which case he will, of course, be more in need of help than his intended victim.

Boston Globe, 1904 

Boston Globe Mlle. Gelas Shows Audience Tricks by Which a Woman Can Repel Attacks of a Ruffian with Hatpin or Twist to Break Arm or Upset Him

A Woman’s Art of Self Defence; Mlle. Gelas’ Demonstration of a Forearm Twist Which Will Break the Bone or Upset a Ruffian

HATPIN NOT HER ONLY WEAPON; Little Strength, Properly Applied, Is Wonderfully Effective; Tricks Men Can Employ

The ease and certainty with which a young woman may defend herself from attacks by ruffians or highway robbers was demonstrated by Mlle. Marie Gelas before an audience which comfortably filled Association Hall last night.

Prof. J.M. Gelas Sr. and Prof. J.M. Gelas Jr. gave an exposition of their system of self-defence, and the demonstration was as novel as it was entertaining.

The program was an exhibition of the art of self-defence given by the Gelas family, assisted by Capt. Seaholme, A.G. Adams and H.H. Davis.  There were many interesting bouts with foils, fencing swords and single-sticks, in the handling of which Prof. Gelas and his son are masters, but the number of absorbing interest was Mlle. Gelas’ illustration of the ease with which unexpected attacks may be repelled by the young woman who has a bit of knowledge of the proper manner of going about it, coupled with a bit of presence of mind.

Mlle. Gelas was assisted by her brother, Prof. J.M. Gelas, Jr., and effectively repelled every manner of attack with the employment of no more force than is possessed by the average woman.  One or two of her methods of meeting attacks were effective enough, if employed with only ordinary force, to leave a street ruffian either absolutely powerless or writhing in agony.  In one or two of her demonstrations, Mlle. Gelas made use of the ever-present feminine hatpin and an umbrella, but just as efficient were the methods to repel attack with little strength properly and quickly applied.

Chicago Tribune, Fall, 1911

By Lord Percy Sholto Douglas, “The Marquis of Queensberry,” known for self-defense techniques with canes and umbrellas.

How To Defend Yourself With An Umbrella

There Are Three Possible Movements With the Sharp Steel Rod of The Ordinary Umbrella That Will Disable An Assailant, If The Umbrella is Handled Properly.

WHY should women not learn to defend themselves? The “manly” art of self defense may be for men only—there is a difference of opinion as to this. In some households—but there are other methods besides the fist. The hatpin has been used upon occasion with terrible effect, and the steel rod umbrella or parasol in proper hands may be almost as deadly as the rapier.

The present attitude of American women invites aggression. Remember the parable of the dog and the cat. The dog may regard the cat with amiable indifference until the cat starts to run away. Then, the moment the cat shows fear and weakness, the savage instinct of the chase is roused and the dog attacks.

The instinct is primal. Few of us but feel it. The weak are their own worst enemies. Given, therefore, a dark, deserted street, a woman glancing timidly from side to side, a vagabond, perhaps well dressed, probably inflamed with alcohol, and the stage is set for robbery and tragedy,

The steel rod parasol or umbrella, to be an efficient weapon must be used as a rapier. This straight, edgeless sword in the hands of the gentlemen experts of another day was a most deadly weapon; its thrust meant death. The parasol of today has many of its qualities. It is sharp and light and, when of sufficiently good quality, it is strong. It is the opinion of competent swordsmen that in skillful hands and with force behind it, the sharp point might be driven through the clothing and walls of the chest. Certainly there is no question that it will inflict painful injury upon the face and throat. Should the point penetrate the opening at the back of the eye socket—as it sometimes has—it would mean instant death.

The woman who wishes to defend herself with her umbrella must learn two things: to thrust with speed, force, and precision, and to have perfect command of her feet. The first can be acquired by a little instruction and a good deal of practice. The second is hardly possible with the narrow skirt. But fortunately by the time one is learned the other will have gone out of fashion.

Racing Nellie Bly
Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History
Know The Past To Invent The Future

11 Responses

    1. Thank you so much for visiting. We could all use a few hatpins in these perilous times. We definitely should have carried them in our past career. I hope you are safe and content.

  1. Have used the mighty umbrella on both sides of the Atlantic to great effect.
    May I add that the umbrella held horizontally with your hands 30-40 centimeters apart and thrust at an adams apple can do real harm (to him) and can be combined at the same time with a quick knee to the groin(always good). He will writhe in agony and you have time to run away.
    A good sharp fork (ideally the fork companion to the steak knife (leave the knife in the kitchen)) is also very useful or make it 2 – one in each hand, have been very useful twice, when thugs tried to grab my bag. One only had to see the forks before he fled, the other I had to “prick”, he screamed that he would call the police, “please do” I said before running away.
    Good luck, Ladies! Go where you want to go safely and remember that not all men are b…..ds, but some are. Be prepared. And may I add that after each of these “incidents”, I felt very joyful.

    1. Whoa! Very interesting. Would love to know more about your experience here…
      Thanks for visiting Racing Nellie Bly and let me know if you have topics you’d like me to explore.Happy travels!

  2. This is what old-fashioned, far right conservatives forget. Tradmen and women, wake up. Women learned hand-to-hand self defense in the olden days and they were awesome!

    1. Thank you! So true. And thanks for the comment. If you see any interesting details about women trailblazers please let us know!

    1. Thank you so much Lisa. I’m fascinated as well. I’d love to find a class that teaches these skills today. Maybe with some updated accessories included. I hope you’re enjoying RacingNellie Bly. We have a lot of new things planned for this year.

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