Why do they not carry umbrellas in Seattle?

Published 10:32 am Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

Very few people in Seattle carry an umbrella. It’s true.

Every American outside the Pacific Northwest has been brainwashed thoroughly to think that Seattle gets constant rain. Who did this brainwashing? And why? I don’t know. But it’s there.

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But the Emerald City only gets about 37 inches of rain a year. Heck, that’s not much more than Albert Lea. We average about 34 inches a year. If you want rain, go to the Gulf of Mexico. Mobile, Ala., gets 67 inches. New Orleans gets 64. Miami gets 62.

(For dry, visit Las Vegas. It gets 4.5 inches a year.)

What Seattle and the entire Puget Sound area lack is sunshine. According KOMO News, a Seattle TV station, the city ranks among the top five for number of cloudy days, with 226 cloudy days per year. The four cities ahead of it are Anchorage, Alaska; Forks, Wash.; Astoria, Ore.; and Olympia, Wash.

In other words, it always looks like it is about to rain in Seattle. When it does rain, sometimes it is in sheets, but usually it is a light rain. And many times it is a mist. Papers don’t even get wet. Hair isn’t messed up. Intermittent windshield wipers don’t have a setting that allows enough time between wipes.

In Minnesota, we have big raindrops, and they fall hard. We are accustomed to seeing people entering doors just soaked from being in the rain without an umbrella. Their hair is ruined for the day. Their clothes need to dry. It rains cats and dogs in the Gopher State.

At least we get our rain over with, then welcome the sunshine. KOMO says Seattle is in the top 20 for days of measurable rain, with 140.

Albert Lea averages 106.5 days of measurable precipitation, according to KIMT television.

There is also an anti-umbrella attitude in Seattle, according to a blog run by KPLU, a public radio station in Seattle.

It notes that Seattle has weather similar to London, but people across the pond don’t shy away from umbrellas. Apparently it goes all the way back to the early Seattle settlers. Fashion never has been as important as the quality of work a person does.

Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry, showed KPLU a sketch of early settlers coming ashore in what’s now West Seattle. It shows women cowering under blankets and bonnets as rain falls in sheets. Garfield says: “What’s missing from this tableau is something that was available elsewhere in the U.S., and that’s umbrellas.”

So why does Seattle shun umbrellas?

“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. 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.”

All this fits with what I recall from residing in Washington state for five years. My wife and I lived on the sunny side of the state, east of the Cascade Range. The mountains force marine weather systems to dump their drops as they climb over the crest, causing an arid environment on the eastern side of the state. Washington is the only state with rain forests and deserts.

We lived in Ellensburg, which has an annual rainfall total of less than 9 inches.

When it rains in Manhattan on a cloudy day, suddenly the pedestrians pull out umbrellas. It’s actually kind of a neat experience.

That said, there are plenty of Midwesterners living in the Northwest. I swear most are from the Upper Midwest, either moving there in the past 20 years or their grandparents moved there 100-some years ago. These intra-country immigrants tend to lose their Midwestern ways and blend in with the locals. On their way to work, they learn the real reason Puget Sound people dislike umbrellas: It’s hard to carry coffee, a cellphone and an umbrella all at the same time.

Personally, I like carrying an umbrella. I keep one in my pickup.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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