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The Umbrella

Updated on August 31, 2009

Umbrellas (from the Latin umbra meaning shade) were by origin sunshades, rather than protections against rain. Coming from the East, they were private and perambulant oases of shade. In the East the sun annihilates, shade is a luxury, and rain a blessing.

In China umbrellas have been known from the twelfth century before Christ, and have been an attribute of dignity and high office. All over the East they have been and are associated with royalty. Nimrod rode to war beneath an umbrella; in Siam the total furniture of the royal audience-chamber was three umbrellas, while the monarch of Ava signed himself 'King of the White Elephants and Lord of the Twenty-Four Umbrellas'. Imported to Europe, the sunshade retained its dignity to some extent as a rich ceremonial jewel in Venice and in Papal Rome, but it had also been used in classical Greece and Rome mainly and merely by women, and in Renaissance Italy, for everyday wear, by horsemen. It did not divide into its dual role till the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The French distinguish exactly its two functions: parasol and parapluie. In more recent times the parasol has been appropriated by women, but the parapluie, anti-rain, may be worn without reserve by either sex.

History of the Umbrella

The sunshade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was ubiquitous: earlier it had been made generally of leather and had to be managed by a sturdy servant, but the introduction of whalebone for the ribs made it light enough to be handled personally by its owner. Silk was the most popular covering, in all colors of the rainbow ; being furled and unfurled, and twirled, the parasol blossomed through the summers to Edwardian days - and then, abruptly, became obsolescent, a victim of the First World War, of streamlining, and of the revolutionary dogma that handsome people are slightly sunburnt. It still appears at Ascot, and on the beaches, but it is no longer a normal accessory of feminine dress.

The progress of the umbrella was more complicated. As with the sunshade, weight, to begin with, militated against it, and it was also considered effeminate, 'a screen commonly used by women to keep off rain' (1708). By the mid-eighteenth century it was becoming popular in France, but it had to fight all the way against snobbism: 'An umbrella is a sure sign that one possesses no carriage' (1768). Jonas Hanway (1712-1788), London merchant and philanthropist, was the first Englishman to carry one, about 1750: he caused some uproar, and his example did not catch. The honor of popularizing the umbrella in England is claimed by John Macdonald, or 'Beau Macdonald', a much-traveled gentleman's gentleman, who wore a fine silk umbrella in London in 1778: he, too, aroused the popular fury, particularly from coachmen and chair-men, and his sister refused to be seen with him. He persisted, and in a year or so, the umbrella was a commonplace, spreading more slowly through the countryside. Jonathan Couch of Polperro in Cornwall recorded the astonishment of the natives about 1800 when the financier of the smuggling interests in that Cornish village paraded the streets with a red umbrella sent him as a present from the brandy shippers of Roscoff in Brittany. Patents for improving the umbrella now followed fast: between 1806 and 1826 the frame was reduced from ten pounds in weight to one and a half; metal displaced whalebone, alpaca came in, and then, about 1850 Samuel Fox, inspired by the Great Tubular Bridge at the Menai Straits, conceived the Paragon frame with ribs of U-shaped steel that gave to maximum lightness a maximum strength; and to Fox, some three hundred thousand pounds profit.

The subsequent history of the umbrella has been funereal, staid and black. Its first historian, Sangster, described those who wore it in 1855 -'Such men', he said 'we feel certain at the first glance, are not addicted to dissipation, nor do they yield to the seductions of the Casino: they are essentially family men ..." Perhaps now dons and undergraduates are the true doyens of the gamp, leaving specimens copiously in railway-racks, lecture-rooms and damply in oak hall-T stands; but in its purest form, sharp and slender and dangerous as a sword, the umbrella in Great Britain, at least, or in London, is now the emblem of the City man and all pseudo-City men (e.g. members of the peerage, the Brigade of Guards and certain bailiffs), and it is always, when worn by men (except for golf), black. London, at least, might be brighter if men wore colored umbrellas; the City in a shower could then sprout, like the dark avenues of a forest which smoulder with all the most dangerous fungi.

The umbrella is distributed unevenly, and is probably most frequent in Great Britain, where weather is notoriously unpredictable. It is popular too especially in another group of islands of temperamental inclemency - Japan; but there the umbrella is both parapluie and parasol, made traditionally from bamboo and oiled paper, cheap, light and expendable. In Japan, too, can be traced the most satisfactory and consistent iconography of the umbrella, for the Japanese (with perhaps the Chinese) are the only people who persistently depict rain in their art: in hundreds of their prints the umbrella twirls, or, half-open, echoes the cone of Mount Fuji. In Europe the umbrella has inspired few great pictures, beyond Renoir's, although individual umbrellas have won great affection (a Miss Alice Mercy Cox of Bayswater willed that hers should rest with her in her grave).

Students of the umbrella should, finally, be warned against confusion with the parachute. Any apparent relationship is purely of structure and not of function. General Beurnonville confused the two in 1793, when escaping from a window forty feet up in the fortress of Ollmutz; he used an umbrella as a parachute. He broke both his legs.

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