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The Umbrella Throughout History: Let a Smile Always Be Yours
by Marjorie Dorfman

Where did the umbrella come from? What is its connection to the parasol? These and other shady issues will be addressed below. Read on, whether you look out upon sun or rain.

It is believed that the first umbrellas were made of silk and that they originated in China more than two thousand years ago. They may even be older than that (at least as parasols) as there is evidence of their presence in the art and artifacts of ancient Egypt, Assyria and Greece. Artistic depictions at Nineveh reveal that the umbrella was generally carried over the king, but it is always shown open. It was often edged with tassels and adorned by a flower or some other ornament at its top. On several bas-reliefs at Persepolis, the king is represented under an umbrella, which a female slave holds over his head. Their primary purpose (both slaves and parasols) was to provide shade from the sun. The Chinese were the first to waterproof their "parasols" in order to use them as protection against the rain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans regarded the umbrella (skiadeion, a word meaning "day shade") as an item of luxury. It was carried over the head of the effigy of Bacchus, and Athenian daughters were required to bear parasols over the heads of maidens at the festival of the Panathenea. At the British Museum, Hamilton vases bear the image of a princess holding a parasol. In Rome, when the veil could not be spread over the roof of a theater, it was customary for both women and effeminate men to defend themselves against the sun with the umbrella of the period known as an umbraculum. They were made either of skin or leather and could be raised or lowered as circumstances might require. (Perhaps it was a way to avoid the direct viewing of Christians being eaten by lions or maybe, after that happened a few times too many, the other way around.)

Although the practice of using an umbrella in Renaissance Italy was probably a vestige of the Roman influence, as late as 1608 Thomas Coryat speaks of the invention after the description of Italian fans. "Many…do carry other fine things, of a far greater price…which they commonly call umbrellaces; that is, things that minister shadow unto them, for shelter against the scorching heat of the sun. These are made of leather, sometimes answerable to the form of a little canopy, and hooped in the inside with…wooden hoopes, that extend the umbrella into a pretty large compasse. They are used especially by horsemen, who carry them in their hands when they ride, fastening the end of the handle upon one of their thighs; and they impart so long a shadow unto them, for shelter of the sun from the upper part of their bodies."

It is possible that umbrellas existed at the very same time in Spain and Portugal, from where they spread to the New World. Daniel De Foe makes mention of an umbrella in Robinson Crusoe. Without his faithful friend, Friday, Crusoe describes umbrellas that he has seen in the Brazils, and he constructs one of his own in imitation of them. Subsequently, one type of very heavy umbrella became known as "The Robinson."

Crusoe goes on to say: "I covered it with skins, the hair outward, so that it cast off the rain like a penthouse, and off the sun so effectually that I could walk out in the hottest of weather with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest."

The word "umbrella" comes from the Latin word "ombra," meaning shade or shadow. Sixteenth century Europe, particularly the rainy northern regions, saw the introduction of the umbrella primarily as an accessory for women. The literature of the time indicates that the exteriors of umbrellas were composed entirely of feathers, in imitation of the plumage of water birds. (Afterwards, oiled silk was commonly used.)

The future of the umbrella as strictly a female thing all changed when Jonas Hanway (1712-86) came upon the English scene. The Persian writer and traveler carried and used an umbrella publicly in England for thirty years. His claims of being in delicate health seemed to justify his crossing of the barrier. He popularized its use among men (who before that got very wet, even though they remained in vogue whenever it rained). Before his time, only those men known as "Macaronies" dared to carry an umbrella (before going into evolution to become noodles popularly used with most cheeses). For years, English gentlemen referred to their umbrellas as "Hanways."

Resistance to the umbrella was not only a matter of sexual preference, but economics as well. Many coachmen regarded rainy weather as something designed to their advantage and from which the public was entitled to no other protection than what their vehicles could offer. One John MacDonald, a footman who wrote a memoir dated about 1790, claimed that upon appearing with a fine silk umbrella which he had brought from Spain, he was saluted with the cry of "Frenchman, why don’t you get a coach?" There was a kind of transition period shortly after this time, during which umbrellas were kept at coffeehouses, liable to be used by gentlemen on special occasions (wet ones, no doubt) under cover of darkness (and possibly masks). It was still, however, stubbornly considered an effeminate accessory.

Early English umbrellas were made of oiled silk and when wet, were particularly difficult to open or close. They were very expensive, heavy and inconvenient until silk and gingham replaced oiled silk. The umbrellas of this time had a ring at the top by which they were usually carried on the finger when unopened and by which, when not in use, they could be hung on the back of a door. A wooden handle came to a rounded point to rest on the ground. These umbrellas were very popular with older women up until around 1810.

The first umbrella shop of record, which opened in 1830, is still today at its original address, 53 New Oxford Street in London. James Smith and Sons sold umbrellas that were works of art; many made of wood and whalebone and covered with alpaca or an oiled canvas. Artisans were employed and paid handsomely to design decorative, curved handles out of hard and precious woods like ebony.

In 1852, Samuel Fox invented the steel ribbed umbrella design, claiming it to be most practical as it was a way to use up excess stocks of farthingale stays, which were used in women’s corsets. Fox also founded the English Steel Company. In 1885, African-American inventor, William C. Carter, patented the very first umbrella stand.

The parasol is most associated with Victorian society. Its popularity may well be ascribed to the Victorian woman’s obsession with maintaining a fair complexion. More than a trademark of beauty, pale skin was a reflection of class, indicating to the world that the woman did not have to work outdoors and was a lady of refinement. Parasols were as much a part of a lady’s wardrobe as her gloves, shoes, hats, fans and stockings. Each outfit a fashionable woman owned had its very own accompanying parasol. They were also popular gifts, and, like the fan and lacy handkerchief, parasols were flirting aids with their own secret language. They were very popular well into the Edwardian era of the early 1900s.

Out of vogue for almost a century, the parasol returned to the fashion scene around 1990, making a comeback like an aging but still beautiful movie queen. This was due largely to an increased awareness of skin cancer and the fact that it was no longer considered healthy or wise to remain in the sun for too long. Parasols are seen with more and more regularity in the streets of Great Britain, France and especially Japan. New materials are being employed that have ultra-violet protection and filter out 97% of dangerous ultra-violet rays.

The most beautiful parasols in the world come from the land of their origin, China. Here they have taken on their own unique persona, even becoming common paraphernalia for artists of the stage. High wire performers use parasols to balance themselves on the high wires. They are made from a variety of materials, (umbrellas, not wirewalkers) including oilpaper, cotton, silk, plastic film and nylon. The best oilpaper umbrellas are thought to be those from Fujan and Hunan provinces. Their bamboo frames are specially treated against mould and worms. The paper covers are hand-painted with flowers, birds, figures and landscapes and then coated with oil so that they are not only practical but pretty and durable as well. They may be used either in rain or sunshine.

The prettiest Chinese umbrellas are those covered with silk, and the silk parasols of Hangzhou are both practical and breathtaking works of art. The very thin silk is printed with landscapes and fixed onto a bamboo frame. Usually weighing a little over eight ounces and about twenty inches long, they are popular gifts for tourists as well. Local girls carry them as part of their everyday attire for protection against the hot and unforgiving sun.

The next time it rains, think about all the years gone by when people got, among other things, very wet. It will endear you to every umbrella you have ever owned, as we all tend to take familiar things for granted. So say hello and thank you to your practical accessory as you raise it to venture out in the wet and the cold. Think about Gene Kelly and his incomparable solo, which he did with an umbrella too (not to mention golden dancing feet and a brilliant choreographic score). The image will not get you wet, for your head is properly covered, but if all goes well, as you walk down the street, it’s sure to make you smile.

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2005