Following on from a previous post on umbrella makers, this post, the first on a series of articles examining the street sellers common in all towns and cities, will look into another worker in the umbrella trade – the forgotten Mush-Faker. Mush-fakers were common on the streets, and were considered, by many, to be a member of the vagrant community. To introduce the Mush-faker (or Mushfaker – the spellings vary depending on the writer) it might be best to turn to the investigations into Lodging Houses and the vagrant community in The Leeds Mercury on 3rd March 1888 by a writer described on as A Wanderer.
Mush-fakers were umbrella repairers and salesmen – they were extremely skilled, and could be described as artisans, their knowledge was so great. The man described in the account in the Leeds Mercury belonged to another class – the stool men – who we will return to later… According to Street Life in London – by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877
“The genuine “mush- faker,”… the man who is familiar with the nature of every ” rib” and “stretcher” that expands and sustains his “mushrooms,” and can make, or “fake,” any part of an umbrella-is able to hold his ground, and re-appears, night after night, at the same market, gathers around him the support of regular customers, who can testify that they have never been deceived.”
Unlike the workers in the City warehouses and the women working in their own homes, these men would go door to door offering to repair umbrellas. They were a member of the minority of street sellers who benefited from a rainy day – most others, according to Mayhew, who relied on selling on the streets, would find themselves on the verge of starvation following even three days of rain – this, however, was when the mush-faker could best sell his wares.
“These.. are divided into various classes, and work according to the degree of capital they possess. The real “mush-fakers” are men who not only sell, but can mend and make umbrellas. Wandering from street to street, with a bundle of old umbrellas and a few necessary tools under their arm, they inquire for umbrellas to mend from house to house. When their services are accepted, they have two objects in view. First, having obtained an umbrella to mend, they prefer sitting out doing the work in the street, in front of the house. This attracts the attention of the neighbours, and the fact that they have been entrusted with work by the inhabitants of one house generally brings more custom from those who live next door. When the job is terminated, the “mush-faker” looks about him, as he enters the house, in quest of an umbrella which has passed the mending stage; and, in exchange for the same, offers to make a slight reduction in his charge. Thus he gradually obtains a stock of very old umbrellas, and by taking the good bits from one old “mushroom and adding it to an other, he is able to make, out of two broken and torn umbrellas, a tolerably stout and serviceable gingham.” T&S 1877
Mush-fakers, if they could make enough capital to buy stock, could also obtain broken umbrellas in the London markets such as that in Petticoat Lane. Traders would work the streets offering china to householders in exchange for old and broken umbrellas, old hats, coats – anything they knew they could sell on – and then bring them to Petticoat Lane to sell ‘wholesale’ to the mush-fakers. Trading in these markets was not cheap – a mush-faker would have to pay 6d a week in order to have purchased the “commodity of the market”, but once he had his collection of umbrellas he would repair them, and then, come the evening:
“he takes his stand on some special spot, probably near or in the midst of a Street market, and attempts to sell the second-hand umbrellas which he has resuscitated with the aid of considerable ingenuity and skill. Altogether, he is able to clear from eighteen pence to five shillings a day.” T&S 1877
Genuine mush-fakers were skilled and reliable, but ranked below the highest ‘class’ in their trade, these being ‘the City Men’. The City men would trade their wares in the City of London, normally in the vicinity of the Royal Exchange and “can be distinguished by the green baize with which they envelope about two dozen umbrellas.” The ordinary mush-fakers looked down on City men, suggesting that they weren’t experts in their trade – they were simply able to collect enough capital to buy extensive stock and dress respectably in order to be able to sell umbrellas to the gentlemen of the City of London. When the weather was wet they could make £2 in just a few hours – the fact that the umbrellas would break, were frequently not waterproofed and were considered useless by the ‘artisans’ was beside the point – in an emergency, such as a rain shower, they might just hold out long enough to stop a gentleman from getting soaked (or not….) They certainly didn’t possess the skills required to create serviceable umbrellas – it was their manner, the presentation of their stock, and their dress that would convince the passing, damp, professional that the umbrellas were worth the astronomical prices charged – a wet day was a good day.
At the bottom of the ‘social scale’ of mush-fakers were the “stool men” – these were resented and considered a liability to the trade of real mush-fakers – even more so than the “City men”. Stool men were able to amass a large amount of capital, and like so many street sellers (as opposed to the skilled mush-faker who relied on his ability to create and mend a decent umbrella, relied on having ‘the gift of the gab’.
“Selecting a corner or a by-street running into a crowded thorough-fare, they take their stand on a stool, and from that eminence commence an eloquent harangue, which culminates in the presentation of a number of umbrellas to the crowd which has gathered around. These men do not always admit that their umbrellas are second-hand. With new handles and fittings they make an old umbrella appear as if it had never been used. If the silk is very old and limp, it may be dipped in a weak solution of gum, and this will make it both stiff and glossy; so long, at least, as the umbrella is kept dry.” T&S 1877
And therein laid the main issue with being swayed into purchasing a lovely, shiny umbrella from a stool man – umbrellas (as opposed to the parasols used by ladies to keep the sun from damaging their complexion) served, and still serve, one purpose – to keep the user dry when it is raining. As soon as these umbrellas got wet they leaked, the gum was washed off and the true nature of the purchase was revealed to a no doubt startled, unsuspecting user as their lovely umbrella – many with polished brass or silver fixings – were suitable only for show and completely useless if it started to rain. Most stool men knew nothing about umbrellas, how to construct them, how to repair them, and simply ‘polished up’ stock purchased at the markets. The fact that their products were useless meant that the stool men and the city men had to be continually on the move as gossip would rapidly spread about the waterproofing qualities of their umbrellas, and their gab or their stylish clothing would account for nothing – they had to move on and find new, unsuspecting customers to prey on.
The skilled, decent mush-fakers had no such problems – they were sought out to assist in the repair of umbrellas in a time when you couldn’t possibly afford to just bin an expensive article. The umbrellas that they had collected and purchased were properly prepared
“Thus, I know of a “mush-faker” who has frequented the corner of Tottenham Court Road, near Oxford Street, for many years, and who always appears on this spot when he has anything to sell; but scores of stool men and “city men” have come and gone during the course of these years, and were never able to outlive the contumely which rewarded the impositions they practised on the poor who placed too much confidence in them.” T&S 1877
The true mush-faker frequently had the last laugh – when the stool men realised an umbrella was broken the only way in which they could recoup their investment was to ask a mush-faker to repair their stock for them:
“This is a moment of triumph for the latter, for such incidents demonstrate that the trade should, if justice were done, be in their hands, instead of being shared by individuals whose only recommendation is due to the fact that they possess a little more money and a great deal more impudence.” T&S 1877