Memphis Umbrella Company
Dear Vance, I recently purchased a vintage umbrella that carries a label for the Memphis Umbrella Company. Where was this establishment, and what happened to it?— R.H., Memphis
Dear R.H.: Oh, what memories this brings me. The Lauderdales often frequented this rather specialized business, because in addition to umbrellas, the proprietor also offered walking sticks and canes, and if some of these happened to conceal swords or even 410-gauge shotguns, well so much the better when we were confronted by ruffians and kidnappers. It happened more often than you’d think. The firm itself goes back quite a way, so your umbrella could be much older than you ever imagined. The Memphis Umbrella Company opened downtown at 72 Madison in 1898, owned and operated by an Englishman, Samuel J. Percer. I don’t know what brought him to Memphis, nor do I know if an umbrella shop was his primary interest, because his death certificate listed his trade as “engraver,” and he might have been responsible for the fine filigree work on the handle of his finest wares, such as the one in your possession. But the person most associated with the shop was Lillie Percer, and she was a most remarkable person, described in a Memphis Press-Scimitar article as a “pioneer career woman.” Born in Burnsville, Mississippi, in 1874, she came to Memphis to find employment, back in the days when few women sought work outside the home. Responding to a newspaper ad seeking “young ladies to learn the umbrella business,” she found her true calling. According to a reporter, “As a small child, she twirled a small umbrella, experiencing a sudden presentiment that she would one day be in the umbrella business.”
At first shocked by the boldness of her prospective employer, who sat on the counter while he interviewed her (in the South, she recalled, a gentleman always stood in the presence of a lady), she not only accepted the job but, seven years later, accepted Percer’s hand in marriage.
The company prospered, not only selling umbrellas, canes, walking sticks, and other high-class items, but repairing them as well. Can you imagine there was ever a time when, if your umbrella broke, you took it to be repaired, instead of just tossing it away and buying a new one? What a world it was! When her husband passed away in 1929, Lillie took over the business, later moving it into a tiny building (still standing) at 1996 East McLemore. A 1931 Press-Scimitar profile found it amusing that a woman could actually run a successful business. A photo showed her at work repairing broken umbrellas, with the caption “Proving the Versatility of Her Sex,” and the reporter observed, “While it might seem peculiar that feminine hands could take to this mechanical sort of work, Mrs. Percer is adept at it.”
But times were changing, and by the 1930s, the Memphis Umbrella Company was struggling. The owner blamed automobiles and doctors. Automobiles were trouble because people didn’t need — or want — to drive long distances in the rain, and physicians hurt her business because “they preach sunshine so much that people stopped carrying parasols to protect them from the sun.”
When Lillie Percer died in 1940, the company closed. In her obituary, she was hailed for her long career — working in the umbrella business for five decades — but also for serving as treasurer of the local Ruth Rebekah Lodge No. 1 for 35 years.
That wasn’t quite the end of the Memphis Umbrella Company. Her daughter, Mrs. William N. Ingram, took over. World War II closed the doors of the shop for a few years because materials such as silk and steel were in short supply, but in 1952, Ingram reopened the store in a new location at 2024 Lamar. Judging from newspaper reports, it had evolved into a decidedly eclectic business; in addition to the sale and repair of umbrellas, Ingram also ran a feed store, hobby shop, and chicken hatchery in that building.
In its first year on Lamar, Ingram told reporters, “The umbrella business is slack right now because it has been such a dry summer. But just wait until the rains come. There will be a flood of business.” Well, that flood never came. Just two years later, the Memphis Umbrella Company folded.
Dear Vance, Is it true that a dog is buried among the graves at Elmwood Cemetery?— M.C., Memphis
Dear M.C.: Yes, it’s true, but his little gravesite is so unobtrusive, and the marker itself so unassuming — no imposing statue of a canine here — that you could walk right by it without even noticing it, as most visitors to Elmwood probably have.
But if you venture into the Miller Circle section of the cemetery, you may notice a row of three “bathtub” grave markers — so-called because, as you can see in the photo here, the above-ground portion is an oval ring that resembles the rim of an old-timey bathtub.
These stones mark the last resting place of a husband, wife, and young boy: Jules Rozier, Elizabeth Rozier Archer, and James Swearengen. If that first name is familiar to you, then I want to thank you, because that suggests you are a faithful reader of this column and remember the times I have mentioned our city’s Memphis Steam Laundry, an architectural marvel since it was modeled after the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and stood for decades just behind the old Russwood Park baseball stadium. Rozier, you see, was the owner of that establishment. Buried next to him is his wife, Elizabeth, and her gravestone carries a different last name — Archer — for the simple reason that she remarried after Rozier passed away in 1964.
Buried next to her is her son, James, the only son from Elizabeth’s first marriage. James died young, at the age of 18, when he was killed in the crash of a small plane just outside Cordova. His mother never really got over the loss of her son, and in the family’s large house in Central Gardens, she maintained the boy’s bedroom just as it was when he died, and a large oil painting of James stood over the fireplace in the living room.
So there you have the (human) family. Behind Elizabeth’s headstone you’ll notice a carved block of white marble, tucked unusually close to her grave. It marks the last resting place of her beloved poodle, Ricci, and his grave is marked with a simple stone that resembles many of the others you’d find in any other cemetery. In her fine book on the history of Elmwood, In the Shadows of the Elms, my friend Perre Magness noted that “Mrs. Archer, contravening cemetery rules, buried her poodle in the family plot.” Note that the little dog lay there for almost 35 years, before Elizabeth herself joined him after her death in 1999. I’m sure some people are dismayed that a dog is buried among the noble monuments of Elmwood, but I think it makes this particular family arrangement complete.
Got a question for Vance? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103