Umbrellas Throughout History
Umbrellas weren’t always an everyday item like they are today. In fact, throughout much of human history they weren’t even used as protective tools against inclement weather but rather only as parasols, offering protection first and foremost from the sun.
Along with their intended use to protect you against the elements, umbrellas and parasols also had prominent roles in various world cultures as religious and status symbols.
Umbrellas in the Ancient World
It is no wonder that the first recorded use of parasols comes from Ancient Egypt. Parasols were in use as early as 3500 BC and were simple in construction and design. Already keeping up with the traditional umbrella shape, Egyptian parasols were made of a wooden body (stick) and a canopy made out of palm leaves.
It was used by kings, queens and religious leaders and soon became a status symbol because it enabled the person carrying it to remain pale-skinned, a sign of nobility.
The shape of the rounded canopy of the parasol may have been heavily influenced by Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the sky and the earth. The sky was said to be made of the body of the goddess Nut who arched over the god of earth Geb, touching the land only with her fingers and toes.
Depiction of goddess Nut and god Geb. Source: Google Image Search
The waterproofing of parasols and thus the invention of the first umbrella can be attributed to the Chinese around 1100 BC.
The first materials used for making umbrellas were silk and later paper. They were made waterproof by using way or lacquer to coat the canopy, the wooden shaft and the handle (often made of bamboo).
The first rudimentary opening and closing mechanism for umbrellas also originates in China, suggesting that this technology that we still use today existed as early as 600 BC.
Parasols and umbrellas in Ancient China were also used as a status symbol by the wealthy and the noble. Certain colors (red and yellow) were reserved for the royals while the common people wore blue parasols.
Parasols were also used in India around 1100 BC (same as in China).
There is anecdotal evidence about the use and symbolic meaning of parasols in Indian culture available from the recounts of several wealthy European merchants. It seems that umbrellas were often found in royal courts as decoration. It was also common for princes and kings to have special members of the royal staff whose sole role was to carry often large and heavy parasols for them.
Painting by Raja Ravi Varma (1848 - 1906) showing Hindu dieties. Source: Pinterest
Greece & Rome
Parasols were used in Greece as early as 500 BC. They were initially reserved for women only, but as time passed men started using them as well.
As is most often the case in other cultures, too, carrying a parasol was considered a sign of wealth and was tied closely to the style of dress of the nobility.
They were also used in several religious rituals.
In Ancient Rome, parasols were also used mostly by women. They were passed on to the Romans either by the Greek (from one of their many colonies) or the Etruscan.
Just like in Egypt, carrying a parasol to ensure your skin remains pale signaled wealth and a high degree of womanliness. It was also considered a great honor for a servant to carry a parasol for her mistress.
An illustration of a Greek woman carrying a parasol. Source: Google Image Search
Umbrellas in Europe: history of function and fashion
It seems like the role and importance of umbrellas in Europe evolved along a slightly different path than in the societies of the Ancient World.
When it comes to protection against the rain, cloaks were actually used the most for that purpose during the Middle Ages (roughly the time period between the 5th and the 15th century).
First mentions of the aesthetics and use of umbrellas come from paintings and writings, mainly English, Italian and French. In England, umbrellas and parasols were probably adopted from China during the 17th century by way of correspondence and exchanging gifts between well-known writers and travelers of the time and the members of Chinese clergy and nobility.
The umbrella became popular in 18th century Paris. It was first introduced in 1710 by the merchant Jean Marius who got the King’s permission to produce umbrellas for the following five years. These umbrellas were already lightweight and collapsible, but had to be opened manually. The design for opening umbrellas mechanically was presented in 1759 by the French scientist Navarre. Still, owning and carrying an umbrella was frowned upon because it signalled the carrier was not wealthy enough to own his or her carriage.
The situation was the same in England during the first half of the 18th century. Stepping outside with an umbrella was a very brave thing to do and something that was the subject of public ridicule. Englishman Jonas Hanway is said to be the first person to publicly use an umbrella starting from the 1750s. The negative stance of the public started changing by the end of the century with a market emerging for modern umbrellas.