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This week we’ve been speaking with Nancy 3. Hoffman, who holds the Guinness World Record for holding the world’s largest collection of umbrella covers. That’s right; over 700 of the matching fabric covers or sleeves that new umbrellas come packaged in have wound their way to Nancy’s museum in Peaks Island, Maine. She’s been kind enough to explore some of the background to her collection as we approach the first ever Umbrella Cover Day, which falls on July 6th and celebrates the humble umbrella cover.

Q. How, and why, did you start collecting umbrella covers?
Whenever I bought a new umbrella, I would toss the cover into this copper wash basin I have in my living room, where I keep my winter scarves and gloves and things like that. So over the years I had accumulated maybe five or six covers.

One day in 1992 I was cleaning out this bin, and noticed that I had a bunch of the little buggers. Why did I keep them in the first place?  I’m not really sure.  I guess because they were somehow quirky and cute.  I didn’t really see any use for them, since after you took them off the umbrella they were almost impossible to get back on again.  And I didn’t really think they were necessary for storing the umbrella.  (Footnote:  I have since found out that a number of people DO in fact use their umbrella covers, but more on that later). I figured they were manufactured so carefully for a reason, I just didn’t know the reason.  But I hesitated to throw them out, in case I was missing something.

That got me to thinking. And wondering. Did OTHER people save their umbrella covers, too? So I started asking around. I visited my friend Becky in Miami.

“Becky, do you have any umbrella covers?” I asked her.

“Sure, I have a couple in my closet here, lost the umbrellas, though. Do you want them? I’ll be happy to give them to you,” she replied.

And, lo and behold, people were willing, make that GLAD to give their old umbrella covers to me.  The fact is that a lot of people have the same problem I do – what do you do with those sleeves after you get the umbrella and start to use it.  OK, there are a lot of people who just slide the thing off and throw it right into the trash. These people know their own minds, and don’t mess around with excess baggage. They probably get their taxes in on time, too.  But a lot of people are like me – curious and hesitant, on  the fence about questions of functionality vs. form, packaging vs. usefulness – and hence, they hold on to their umbrella covers.

But I didn’t stop there. I asked Becky why she had kept HER umbrella covers and what had happened to the umbrellas they were originally on. The answer as to why she still had them was understandably vague and evasive. But her memory of the two umbrellas they had come on was clear.  And the story of her favorite duck-handled umbrella that had been lost on a trip to Nassau was enthusiastically related to me. I went home and made a note of it.

So after I began accumulating other peoples’ covers, I started tacking them to my kitchen wall with little sticky notes telling who they had come from and what the story was about the umbrella or the cover or the person who had given it to me. I asked more people and got more covers. The wall started to fill up. People who came to my house to visit me started asked questions. “Nancy, why do you have a bunch of umbrella covers stuck on your wall?” I would explain and they would read the notes. People were generally amused by this. I started to realize that umbrella covers weren’t only fascinating to me, they had a universal appeal.

Then I elaborated. I started writing up the stories and making official-looking signs to go next to the covers.  I started thinking of this as a museum, and finally, in 1996 I opened the doors of my house to the public to view the World’s First and Only Umbrella Cover Museum. There were about 35 covers in the collection at that time, from four countries. The Museum was open one weekend a month in the summer. Six days that first year. An auspicious beginning.

Q. What do you do with the umbrellas themselves? Do you have a big pile of discarded brollies?

Most of the covers I get are donated by individuals, rather than from umbrellas I purchase myself. As such, they are given to me sans umbrella so I do not have an excess of umbrellas lying around. I LIKE umbrellas a lot, and probably have more than my fair share. But it is not the umbrella I seek. Most people do not use their covers after the initial removal, so they are happy to dispose of the sleeves to a venerable institution such as my museum. Other covers I get are found on the street. Dare I say discarded by their original owners. One individual, my Museum Trustee, Lynn Heinemann, has donated over 65 umbrella covers herself. She finds them on the streets of Boston. I do request that each donor include a story of the purchase, discovery, or adventures of their cover, so that the anecdote is donated along with the package.

Q. Don’t I need my cover? Are umbrella covers useless? What do I do, and how do I cope if I’ve given mine away to you?
Some people use their umbrella covers. In an informal survey at The Umbrella Cover Museum, I would say that 17% of the people who come in use their umbrella covers, 17% throw them out right away, and the other 66% do not have any idea what they do with them. On further prodding, they may admit to possibly having tossed them in a drawer, or the closet, but nothing they can declare with conviction. So giving yours away to me might not bother you at all. That’s a personal question.

Q. What’s your favourite umbrella cover?
My favourite one is the most recent one I have received. So today my favourites are 3 donated by a friend named Marci. I was getting a tour of her house, and she offered me the cover from an umbrella in her umbrella stand at the front door. She said she did not use it. Then she said, “Wait a minute, I think I have some more….” and proceeded upstairs. She came down with two very similar, dark blue and black. They had been from folding umbrellas left behind by a guest or two in an upstairs bedroom. She really didn’t know where they had come from, but she was content to keep the umbrellas for a rainy day, and to give me the covers.

Q. Do parasol covers count?

Well, we think that just about covers it, and wraps things up nicely – just like an umbrella cover. If you’d like to dive deeper into the world of umbrella covers, Nancy’s museum opens from May 23 – Sept. 5, so feel free to pop in when you’re in the neighborhood (though it’s best to give a call or email in case Ms. Three is under the weather, or otherwise occupied), and don’t forget to take an umbrella cover with you to donate to the collection!

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