Umbrella museum handles history

Collection traces family's work through generations


In 1965, Olof Martensson looked at the changing scope of the world culture and told his father it was time to change the company business of making umbrellas to selling retractable awnings.

"I told my father that I was not sure about umbrellas in the future, and I told him I wanted to go into awnings," said the Swedish-born Martensson. "My father wasn't too pleased with the idea, but I wanted to make awnings that the middle man could afford."

Forty years after Martensson left the family umbrella business to begin his awnings company, he and his family decided to bridge the present and the past and open their own umbrella museum. It is located at Martensson's business, Awnings by Sunair, in Jessup.

The family's history of umbrella making began in 1880 in Sweden with Nils Petter Martensson, Martensson said.

"We started by making tops for canes, and then we moved to making lady parasols and then rain umbrellas," Martensson said as he showed off the intricate design of a handmade umbrella designed in 1880.

Although the Martenssons did not automatically turn a profit in the 1800s, Martensson said that a craze for new umbrellas at the turn of the century caused the business to take off.

"I remember getting my start as a little child by repairing umbrellas," Martensson said. "In those days, umbrellas could cost around $12 or $20, which is about $200 today."

A love of umbrellas led Martensson to follow in the footsteps of his family and begin making umbrellas after he was discharged from the Swedish army in 1960.

"In those days, you had to be an apprentice to be able to practice the craft," said Martensson, an Annapolis resident. "I was an apprentice in Germany and France and finally in Italy, which in those times was known for making umbrellas."

With production of umbrellas becoming cheaper and faster, Martensson said he felt it was necessary to move to awnings in 1965 - but he still kept umbrellas from the business, as well as umbrellas his father had begun to collect.

"We had all of these umbrellas boxed up and put into storage, and we just decided that we should display them," he said, adding that the family moved the awnings company to the United States in 1978 in search of better opportunities. "It just so happens that Baltimore is the gateway for the umbrella factory business."

The museum contains more than 150 umbrellas, as well as canes that date to 1880. Delicately opening a black-and-white parasol that was rumored to have been used by Napoleon, he said that his father has collected umbrellas from the family's business, which has spanned five generations, and from other areas, as well.

Robert Martensson, Olof's son, said the family uses the museum, which opened in February and is off to the side of the company's conference room, to illustrate the company's stability to the 350 awnings dealers who visit.

"It tells the whole story about our company," said Robert Martensson, 40, who is also the vice president of the company and fifth-generation heir to the company. "It is our heritage. Future business is based upon past business. It gives clients that idea that we are going to be here for a while."

The links between the current business and the family's past can be seen throughout the company's offices.

Visitors can see the history of the business in a front door - the original door to the family's umbrella store - as well as the original wood from the umbrella store surrounding the building and certificates from the early days of umbrella making, said Estelle Blackenship, Olof Martensson's daughter, who is the corporate secretary.

"When I graduated from college I thought about doing something else, but this was instilled in me, so had to come back," said Blackenship, who is now teaching her 4- and 7-year-old children about the business so they can continue the legacy and one day become the sixth-generation heirs. "We have been taught from early childhood the love for this business and our past."

Blackenship said they show the museum to anyone who would like to see it. The family would never consider selling any of the umbrellas or canes, Blackenship said.

"You can't put a price tag on it," she said.

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