The History of Umbrellas

The Umbrella

The word “umbrella” derives from the Latin word “umbra,” meaning “shade.” And “parasol” derives from the Spanish/French “para,” ” meaning “stop” and “sol,” which means “sun.” The archaeological record establishes the presence of the parasol and umbrella in many of the great cultures of the ancient world: in Egypt; Assyria; Ethiopia; India; Persia; Greece; Rome; the Mali, Ghana, and Songhai empires of West Africa; and the Aztecs of Mexico, for example. But nowhere was the use of umbrellas and parasols more prominent than in ancient China, where it appears by the 11th century B.C.E.

Until the 18th century, parasols and umbrellas were used for protection from the sun, the difference being that parasols were carried over the person (by an attendant), while umbrellas were carried by the person (him/herself). For a brief time during the Roman era, people used umbrellas for protection from the rain, but the idea never garnered popular support. And in ancient Greece, it became popular for ladies to have parasols held over their heads at feasts in honor of Pallas Athena. As a result, the parasol came to be associated with women—especially those of the privileged classes.

The popularity of umbrellas in Europe derives from the 12th century when Pope Alexander III presented the Doge of Venice with a parasol to be carried over his head, (a custom that would endure until Napoleon Bonaparte brought an end to the Venetian Republic in 1797). By the 15th century, the umbrella had become a fashion accessory for shielding people from the sun.

According to the Oakthrift Corporation article titled “The History of Umbrellas—10 interesting facts you never knew,” umbrellas became popular in France amongst ladies in the 17th century, and by the 18th century, use of the accessory had spread across Europe. But umbrellas and parasols did not appear in England. Scotland, and Ireland until Portugal’s Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in 1662 and introduced the accessory to his realm. [It is believed that the superstition forbidding the opening of an umbrella indoors derives from the untimely death of Prince Rupert shortly after he had been presented with a gift of two umbrellas from the King of Batam in 1682].

Between 1685 and 1705, there were efforts, led by the English, perhaps on account of their notoriously rainy weather, to waterproof umbrellas. Unlike in the Roman era, the concept of using umbrellas for protection against the rain caught on in England. And the waterproofing of umbrellas gave rise in the mid-18th century to the distinction between the parasol as an accessory to shade one from the sun, and the umbrella for protection from the rain.

The earliest written record of a collapsible umbrella with bendable joints dates to 21 C.E. China, but the archaeological record suggests that such devices may have been used as early as the 6th century B.C.E. in China. In 1786, John Beale registered the first umbrella patent. His design was of a circular, coned canopy supported by ribs connected to a central shaft. But it was Samuel Fox’s U-shaped steel ribs construction that revolutionized umbrella construction. Fox’s design is still used today.

Perhaps because of the precedent set with the Pallas Athena feasts during antiquity, the umbrella would remain an accessory primarily used by women—until Jonas Hanway popularized its use by English gentlemen in the middle of the 18th century, so much so that umbrellas would, for a time, come to be called “Hanways.” But even so, there was resistance to umbrellas: Hackney coachmen regarded the accessory as competition; and some members of the privileged classes regarded being seen in public with an umbrella as a tacit admission of one’s inability to own a carriage. By the 19th century, perhaps in a reactionary ostentatious display of wealth coupled with a bona-fide need for portable protection from the rain, umbrellas had become fancy—with handles of precious metals studded with gemstones, for example. But by 1852 the umbrella had become a necessity, so much so that whalebone was replaced by mass-produced steel ribs as the structural foundation for umbrellas.

Tanned skin became fashionable around the 1930s, and with it came the beginning of the end of the parasol. The umbrella, however, being a portable, practical shield from rain, remained popular.

In 1928, Hans Haupt’s pocket umbrellas became available on the market. In the 1950s, nylon replaced oiled cotton canvas as the fabric of choice for umbrella canopies. And in 1969, Totes, Inc., obtained a patent for the first functional folding umbrella. Today, in the United States alone, over 33 million umbrellas are sold per year.

The English have, by necessity, mastered the art of making umbrellas: English umbrellas are considered the best in the world. And of all English umbrella manufacturers, Swaine, Adeney, Brigg & Sons is considered the absolute best. And the best “Brigg” umbrellas are those made of triple-woven silk (which expands a little when wet), thereby making the fabric absolutely waterproof.

If a gentleman intends to invest in a good umbrella, he would be wisest to select one in the color black, for wherever umbrellas are appropriate, a black one is always most appropriate.

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