Who invented the cocktail umbrella--and why?

November 17, 2000

Dear Cecil:

What is up with those little umbrellas in exotic drinks? Who started it and why?

When this E-mail arrived, I glanced at the 3:05 PM time stamp and thought, boy, somebody's starting in on the mai tais a little early. However, the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board informed me that cocktail umbrellas were a key element in the cult of the tiki, pointing me to www.tikinews.com. This brought up a picture of an Easter Island-type idol and a beautiful Polynesian maiden, her bare breasts peeking out from under her lei like ripe casaba melons. Above this was the headline, "We Worship Tikis."

I'm kinda partial to 'em myself, I thought, inspecting the maiden.

No, no, the SDSAB informed me, the tiki is the carved idol. Lest you get the wrong idea, the tiki cult isn't some weird Santeria thing involving goat sacrifice but rather a retro appreciation of the tiki bar, also known as a Polynesian bar, which specializes in island decor, exotic cuisine, and tropical drinks topped with cocktail parasols and other fancy paraphernalia. The tiki joint, I was told, has played a pivotal if unappreciated role in American culture for more than 60 years, blah blah blah.

All right already, I said, I'll find out about the damn cocktail umbrellas. I called Trader Vic's, the San Francisco-based chain of Polynesian-style restaurants, figuring they were bound to know. (The term Polynesian applies somewhat loosely; it's not like they're serving poi.) Soon I was chatting with Peter Seely, grandson of Victor J. Bergeron, who in 1932 started the business that became Trader Vic's. Peter informed me that never in its history had Trader Vic's served a drink with a cocktail umbrella.

Meanwhile, my assistant Jill talked with Victor J. "Joe" Bergeron III, the founder's son. Joe said Vic's had served drinks with cocktail umbrellas up until the early 1940s, when importation of the little parasols from factories in the Far East was halted by the outbreak of war. Informed that Peter had given us a different story, Joe said, "Oh hell, I was there. I'm the guy who was stealing cherries from behind the bar when I was eight years old." Good enough for us.

Joe went on to say that his father had borrowed the umbrella idea and a few other things from the Don the Beachcomber restaurants (now defunct), which had pioneered Polynesian-style dining. Prior to that, he believes, they were available in Chinese restaurants, which coincides with the view we've heard elsewhere that the parasol (or at least the idea of putting it in a drink) was a Chinese-American invention. Efforts to confirm this with Chinese and Chinese-American firms selling the umbrellas today were unsuccessful, no doubt because everyone had sworn a blood oath of secrecy with the tongs. However, we have seen nothing to convince us that the umbrellas are actually native to Polynesia, as some foolishly believe.

Why umbrellas? Some tiki devotees argue that they shield the ice cubes from intense solar radiation. Joe wasn't having any of that, though. They were simply a means of decorating a fancy beverage, he said, along with miniature ceramic parrots, Tahitian war clubs, and Marquesan canoe paddles. But they're so iconic, whined the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board. Yeah, whatever. Now, can I get a shot and a beer?

THE WHOLE NINE YARDS (AGAIN)

Dear Cecil:

No opinions, no made up stories about wedding veils, coal, suits, or brass tacks. Based on discussions with my grandfathers, both World War II veterans, and confirmed by several military sources, here is the definitive answer for where "the whole nine yards" came from. [This question was debated ad nauseam in More of the Straight Dope--C.A.] The whole nine yards refers to the length of one ammunition belt from a belly-gunner's machine gun. When a target was overly resilient and the gunner was forced to expend all his ammunition to bring it down, it was said to have taken the "whole nine yards." Also, when loading up for a mission that was going to be particularly dangerous, gunners would refer to bringing the "whole nine yards," as they would need quite a bit of ammunition to complete the mission safely. --Ian McDonald, New York

Cecil replies:

You're not dragging me into this one again. To quote Evan Morris, the Word Detective (www.word-detective.com): "'The whole nine yards' first cropped up in print in the mid-1960s. . . . Even if machine gun belts really were 27 feet long in WWII, why has the phrase 'the whole nine yards' not been found in a single published account of that very well-documented war?"

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