Umbrellas: A History

Umbrellas, also known as parasols, bumbershoots, portable roofs,rainshades, sunshades, gamps, Hanways, and brollies have been around for a very long time. Utilized over 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, Greece, Assyria, and China, these useful objects have protected humans from sun and rain alike- and have also acted as symbols of status and style.

The History of Umbrellas

Apparently, the earliest umbrellas were designed with sun protection in mind. The Chinese were the first to waterproof these tools via wax and lacquer. In the umbrella’s early days, access was limited to only the higher echelons of society. Held over individuals by servants or slaves, the accessories have been compared to the modern day luxury car- the bigger the umbrella was, the wealthier its owner was seen to be.

The umbrella (derived from the Latin root word “umbra” (shade / shadow) did not enter the European scene until the 16th century, first as an accessory for women (and as a sunshade) and later as a rain protection tool.

In the umbrella’s early rain protection days, the tool had a relatively low status. One reason for this hesitance can be due to the accessory’s history as a woman’s fashion accessory. Furthermore, persons of importance had no need for the tool as they were conveyed from one place to another in closed carriages.

Umbrellas nevertheless caught on (for not everyone has the luxury of a private coach and chauffeur) and soon became ubiquitous- especially in the busy streets of 18th century London, where rainy days were common. One of the individuals responsible for making umbrellas popular in this gloomy city was Jonas Hanway, a Persian traveler and writer, who was frequently seen with the accessory- so much that many referred to it using his name.

The first umbrella shop, called “James Smith and Sons,” emerged in London in 1830 and sold umbrellas of “wood or whalebone and covered with alpaca or oiled canvas” (and weighing about ten pounds!). Soon thereafter, Samuel Fox debuted the steel rubbed umbrella design via his English Steels Company.

The first telescoping umbrellas was not invented until the 1920s, by a Berlin man named Hans Haupt. Nylon fabrics were introduced to umbrella design in the 1960s, allowing the accessories to be more colorful, light, and durable. Additional improvements, such as the use of aluminum, fiberglass, and automatic opening mechanisms, improved convenience even more.

Umbrellas Today

The modern umbrella is a complex tool, complete with many interesting (and interestingly named) parts, such as the ferrule (at the tip of the umbrella’s top), rib, runner, stretcher, tube, tip cup, and crook handle. This useful accessory does not go uncelebrated- March has actually been named national umbrella month. Who knew?

Considering how many umbrellas we go through, it is no wonder that this accessory has its own month. “The average household is said to have an average of 3.8 umbrellas” according to Abby Eyersof Associated Content, and umbrellas are some of the most commonly lost, discarded, forgotten, and abandoned objects we own.

Contemporary umbrellas have become increasingly stylized and varied in form and function. One can purchase compact travel umbrellas, elaborate patterned umbrellas, children’s umbrellas, and even expensive designer umbrellas.

While most modern umbrellas are designed for rain protection, parasols are beginning to make a comeback. UV parasols have become quite popular in Japan- these are not normal umbrellas but rather parasols that are specially designed to block UV rays; they actually do not provide protection from the rain. Many people in China (and even the States) can be seen using rain umbrellas for sun protection, but chances are that dedicated UV umbrellas will gain market share as concern with skin cancer and UV protection increases.

Plain old rain umbrellas are also entering new frontiers. Some companies are developing new umbrella designs- one example can be seen in the Nubrella- a dome-like rain protection device that rests on the wearer’s shoulders, leaving his or her hands free. Other cool modern umbrella innovations include ‘brollies’ with projector screens, brass knuckles, LED lighting, full-body protection, color-changing materials, bluetooth touchscreens,windproofing, and built-in stands.

What we can therefore expect from umbrellas is this: a growth in sun protecting accessories, as well as increased use of technology (to add lighting, convenience, and device compatibility) and innovative, eye-catching design.

Sources & Further Reading

The History of the Umbrella (Associated Content, Abby Eyers)
The History of the Umbrella (European-Umbrellas.com)
World Wide Words: Bumbershoot (World Wide Words, MichaelQuinion)
Who Invented the Umbrella? (About.com, Mary Bellis)
Parts of an umbrella (Scleroderma Society / James Carver Umbrellas)
Umbrella (Wikipedia)
Dry-Tech: The 20 Coolest Umbrellas You’ll Ever See (TheCoolist*)

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Comments 8 comments

World-Traveler profile image

World-Traveler 6 years ago from USA

I always seem to have an umbrella with me. Its the rainy season in this Asian like latitude. Umbrella designs are really incredible. Thanks for the written information as well as the visuals.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

It's a smart thing to keep an umbrella on hand! I'm glad you liked the hub. Umbrellas are pretty nifty!


frogyfish profile image

frogyfish 5 years ago from Central United States of America

Nylon for umbrellas not until the '60s? Wow. No wonder I didn't have one as a kid. And the old ones were ten pounds heavy.

You gave an interesting history on a simple subject -for who doesn't have an umbrella? Well, maybe Sarahanites... :-)


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hahaa - well, for them: parasols! Umbrellas are fascinating objects indeed. Thanks for reading!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

Well leave it to the Egyptians. Every time people talk about the history of all sorts of things, it seems as if the ancient Egyptians had them. Amazing. I love the word bumbershoot. My favorite umbrella was picked up at Good Will. It's black and edged with rose buds - so cute. I hope I don't lose it like I've lost all the rest!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Seriously!! And that Goodwill umbrella sounds incredibly charming- keep an eye on it!!


ixbag profile image

ixbag 5 years ago from Guangzhou

interesting! In China, there is also a story about the invention of umbrella.


parasols 5 years ago

The blog is absolutely fantastic. Lots of great information and inspiration, both of which we all need. Thanks for such a continuous great postings.

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