History of the Umbrella

black_umbrella_clip_art_20394“History of the Umbrella”

Excerpt from RL. Chambers’ Book of Days, Vol. 1 (1864) at 241-44  and his view of  umbrella history at that time.

The designation of this useful contrivance (from umbra, shade) indicates the earliest of its twofold uses. Johnson describes it as “a screen used in hot countries to keep off the sun, and in others to bear off the rain;” and Kersey many years before (1708) had described it as “a kind of broad fan or screen, commonly used by women to shelter them from rain; also a wooden frame, covered with cloth, to keep off the sun from a window.” Phillips in his New World of Words, edit. 1720, describes the umbrella as “now commonly used by women to shelter them from rain.”

As a shade from the sun, the umbrella is of great antiquity. We see it in the sculptures and paintings of Egypt, and Sir Gardner Wilkinson has engraved a delineation of an Ethiopian princess, traveling in her chariot through Upper Egypt to Thebes, wherein the car is furnished with a kind of umbrella fixed to a tall staff rising from the center, and in its arrangement closely resembling the chaise umbrella of the present time. The recent discoveries at Nineveh show that the umbrella (or parasol) “was generally carried over the king in time of peace and even in war. In shape,” says Layard, “it resembled very closely those now in common use, but it is always seen open in the sculptures. It was edged with tassels, and was usually adorned at the top by a flower or some other ornament. On the later bas-reliefs, a long piece of linen or silk, falling from one side, like a curtain, appears to screen the king completely from the sun. The parasol was reserved exclusively for the monarch and is never represented as borne over any other person. On several bas-reliefs from Persepolis, the king is represented under an umbrella, which a female slave holds over his head.”

From the very limited use of the parasol in Asia and Africa, it seems to have passed both as a distinction and a luxury, into Greece and Rome. The Skiadeion, or day shade of the Greeks was carried over the head of the effigy of Bacchus; and the daughters of the aliens at Athens were required to bear parasols over the heads of the maidens of the city at the great festival of the Panathenea. We see also the parasol figured in the hands of the princess on the Hamilton vases in the British Museum. At Rome, when the veil could not be spread over the roof of the theatre, it was the custom for the females and effeminate men to defend themselves from the sun with the umbrella or umbraculum of the period; and this covering appears to have been formed of skin or leather, capable of being raised or lowered as circumstances might require.

Although the use of the umbrella was thus early introduced into Italy, and had probably been continued there as a vestige of ancient Roman manners, yet so late as 1608, Thomas Coryat notices the invention in such terms as to indicate that it was not commonly known in his own country. After describing the fans of the Italians, he adds: “Many of them do carry other fine things, of a far greater price, that will cost at least a ducat (5s 6d), which they commonly call, in the Italian tongue, umbrellaces; that is, things that minister shadow unto them, for shelter against the scorching heat of the sun. These are made of leather, something answerable to the form of a little canopy, and hooped in the inside with divers little 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, that it keepeth the heate of the sun from the upper part of their bodies.” It is probable that a similar contrivance existed, at the same period in Spain and Portugal, whence it was taken to the New World. Defoe, it will be remembered, makes Robinson Crusoe describe that he had seen umbrellas employed in the Brazils, and that he had constructed his own umbrella in imitation of them. “I covered it with skins,” he adds, “the hair outwards, so that it cast off the rain like a penthouse, and kept off the sun so effectually, that I could walk out in the hottest of the weather with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest.” In commemoration of this ingenious production, one species of the old heavy umbrellas was called “The Robinson.”

The umbrella was used in England as a luxurious sun-shade early in the seventeenth century. Ben Jonson mentions it by name in a comedy produced in 1616: and it occurs in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, where Altea says:

“Are you at ease? Now is your heart at rest?

Now you have got a shadow, an umbrella,

To keep the scorching world’s opinion

From your fair credit.”

In those days, as we may infer from the passage in Drayton, the umbrella was composed exteriorly of feathers, in imitation of the plumage of water-birds. Afterwards, oiled silk was the ordinary material. In the reign of Queen Anne, the umbrella appears to have been in common use in London as a screen from the rain but only for the weaker sex. Swift in the Tatler, October 17, 1710, says in “The City Shower:”

“The tuck’d up seamstress walks with hasty strides,

While streams run down her oiled umbrella’s sides.”

Gray speaks of it in his Trivia; or the Art of Walking the Streets of London:

“Good housewives all the winter’s rage despise,

Defended by the riding-hood’s disguise:

Or underneath th’ umbrella’s oily shed,

Safe through the wet on clinking pattens tread.

Let Persian dames th’ umbrella’s ribs display,

To guard their beauties from the sunny ray;

Or sweating slaves support the shady load,

When Eastern monarchs shew their state abroad;

Britain in winter only knows its aid,

To guard from chilly showers the walking maid.”

This passage, which points to the use of the umbrella exclusively by women, is confirmed by another passage in the Trivia, wherein the surtout is recommended for men to keep out of the drenching shower.

“By various names, in various countries known,

Yet held in all the true surtout alone.

Be thine of kersey firm, though small the cost;

Then brave unwet the rain, unchill’d the frost.”

At Woburn Abbey is a full length portrait of the beautiful Duchess of Bedford, painted about 1730, representing the lady as attended by a black servant, who holds an open umbrella to shade her. . . .

Cantilevered Umbrellas have a Post on the side

Side Post Cantilevered Umbrellas

. . . The eighteenth century was half elapsed before the umbrella had even begun to be used in England by both sexes, as we now see it used. In 1752, Lieutenant-Colonel (afterwards General) Wolfe, writing from Paris says: “The people here use umbrellas in hot weather to defend them from the sun and something of the same kind to save them from the snow and rain. I wonder a practice so useful is not introduced in England.” Just about that time, a gentleman did exercise the moral courage to use an umbrella in the streets of London. He was the noted Jonas Hanway, newly returned from Persia, and in delicate health, by which, of course, his using such a convenience was justified both to himself and the considerate part of the public. “A parapluie,” we are told “defended Mr. Hanway’s face and wig.”  For a time no others than the dainty beings then called Macaronies ventured to carry an umbrella. Any one doing so was sure to be hailed by the mob as “a mincing Frenchman.” Once John Macdonald, a footman, who has favoured the public with his memoirs, found as late as 1770, that, on 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?” It appears, however, as if there had previously been a kind of transition period, during which an umbrella was kept at a coffee-house, liable to be used by gentlemen on special occasions by night, though still regarded as the recourse of effeminancy. In the Female Tatler of December 12, 1709, there occurs the following announcement: “The young gentleman belonging to the Custom House, who, in the fear of rain borrowed the umbrella at Will’s coffee-house, in Cornhill, of the mistress, is hereby advertised that to be dry form head to foot on the like occasion, he shall be welcome to the maid’s pattens.” It is a rather early fact in the history of the general use of the umbrella that in 1758, when Dr. Shebbeare was placed in the pillory, a servant stood beside him with an umbrella to protect him from the weather, physical and moral, which was raging around him.

Much of the clamour which was raised against the general use of the umbrella originated with the chairmen and hackney-coachmen, who, of course, regarded rainy weather as a thing especially designed for their advantage and from which the public were entitled to no other protection than what their vehicles could afford.

In all the large towns of the empire, a memory is preserved of the courageous citizen who first carried an umbrella. In Edinburgh, it was a popular physician named Spens. In the Statistical Account of Glasgow by Dr. Cleland, it is related about the year 1781 or 1782 the late Mr. John Jameson, surgeon, brought with him an umbrella on his return from Paris, which was the first seen in the city and attracted universal attention. This umbrella was made of heavy wax-cloth, with cane ribs and was a ponderous article. Cowper mentions the umbrella twice in his Task, published in 1784.

The early specimens of the English umbrella made of oiled silk, were, when wet, exceedingly difficult to open or close; the stick and furniture were heavy and inconvenient, and the article generally very expensive; though an umbrella manufacturer in Cheapside, in 1787, advertised pocket and portable umbrellas superior to any kind ever imported or manufactured in this kingdom; and “all kinds of common umbrellas prepared in a particular way, that will never stick together.” The substitution of silk and gingham for oiled silk, however, remedied the above objections.

The umbrella was originally formed and carried in a fashion the reverse of what now obtains. It had a ring at the top, by which it was usually carried on the finger when furled (and by which also it could be hung up within doors), the wooden handle terminating in a rounded point to rest on the ground. The writer remembers umbrellas of this kind being in use among old ladies as lately as 1810. About thirty years ago, there was living in Taunton, a lady who recollected when there were but two umbrellas in that town; one belonged to a clergyman, who, on proceeding to his duties on Sunday, hung up the umbrella in the church porch, where it attracted the gaze and admiration of the townspeople coming to church.

Bases for Umbrellas

Umbrella Bases

Parasols or Umbrellas Today

The word “umbrella” evolved from the Latin word “umbra“, meaning “shaded.” The word “parasol” is from “para” meaning “to shield” or ” to stop” and from “sol” meaning “sun”. Umbrellas are now usually made some kind of fabric canopy that is either hand held or fixed to a stationary wood or aluminum pole,  and used primarily to protect us from the elements like rain, sleet, snow or the sun’s rays.     Fabrics for the canopy can vary quite a bit.    SunBrella (acrylic) holds up well to the elements, but olefin, nylon, Coolaroo are common too!     Canopies are held out  in place by wood, aluminum, and now fiberglass ribs.      There are also a large variety of  bases and stands for umbrellas.

About Trey Collier

Avid Do-It-Yourself-er. Love's being outdoors. Helped push the shade sail market into one of the fastest growing outdoor shade structures product in North America.

2 thoughts on “History of the Umbrella”

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