The History of the Umbrella

From old, heavy parasols to light, automatic designs, the history of umbrellas hasn’t so much been up and down as Europe late catching up with the hype before spearheading its popularity.

Umbrellas have been around for something like 4,000 years in one form or another when our ancestors in Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and China used parasols to shade themselves from the sun.

The word umbrella is from the Latin word umbra, which in turn derives from the Ancient Greek ombros, meaning “shade” or “shadow”. Brolly is a slang word for umbrella, which developed in Britain and Australia and in some ways has replaced “umbrella”.

The Chinese have often been credited for inventing the first to waterproof umbrellas for use as rain protection when they waxed and lacquered their paper parasols after understanding they could protect from the rain as well as the sun.

By the middle ages the umbrella was very popular in Asia and Africa, but the impact of the Roman Catholic Church meant that its popularity hadn’t spread to the European continent because of the umbrella’s association with tribal religious ceremonies.

Different reports indicate that the first umbrella spread across Europe from Portugal and Italy as their impact in different colonies began to reach those more “civilised” societies.

Modern umbrellas became popular in the sixteenth century as an accessory for women in the changeable northern European weather. It had also helped that someone had worked out how to make these parasols fold and open and so the humble umbrella took the shape we know today.

And after the Persian traveller and writer, Jonas Hanway (1712-1786), publically used an umbrella in England for a number of years, the “woman’s accessory” became popular among men. So much so, that English gentlemen often referred to them as a “Hanway”.

Early European umbrellas were made of wood or whalebone and covered with alpaca or oiled canvas, with curved handles out of hard woods like ebony.

But in 1852 Samuel Fox invented the steel ribbed umbrella design, over 20 years after the first umbrella shop opened in London, England. This helped transform the umbrella from something which was rather large and awkward into something which was lighter and more manageable. It was easier for the person using it as the practice of having servants to carry them around had disappeared and people were now getting used to holding their own umbrellas above their heads.

As a more modern and recognisable events, like sport and leisure pursuits, took hold of society, umbrellas and parasols continued to be part of everyday life. The middle third of the nineteenth century saw the introduction of silk and lace designs with ruffles and fringes, followed by the addition of chiffon, embroidery and spangles and increasingly elaborate ideas.

The early twentieth century witnessed the pencil umbrella which was characterised by its long, thin appearance and set off by the black silk material. Parasols disappeared by 1930 as the umbrella became more popular and in time the umbrella grew smaller and gave up its long handle.

The design remained virtually the same until after the Second World War when compact collapsible umbrellas were invented as a technical response to the increasingly mobile population of the world.

The more contemporary umbrella is characterised by a button which springs the canopy into action; and comes in all shapes and sizes, banishing the solitary black umbrella to history.

We now have the design, the decreasing size and the mechanized structure. Is there anywhere umbrellas can go after this? Only the weather can tell us.