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Brief Evolution of an Umbrella: from Palm Leaves to Cutting-Edge Technology

Be it a downpour or a scorcher, we can always stand under an umbrella (ella, ella), but do we know enough about its history?
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Brief Evolution of an Umbrella: from Palm Leaves to Cutting-Edge Technology

Be it a downpour or a scorcher, we can always stand under an umbrella (ella, ella), but do we know enough about its history? Be it a downpour or a scorcher, we are used to relying on a portable folding canopy, which is better known by the name "umbrella". But do we actually know how long it took the device to develop its modern shape? Let's look back into the history of umbrella (or parasol) and find out!


Beatiful, complex Chinese umbrella in the sunshine

Ancient China

The oldest known written reference to a collapsible umbrella dates back to year 21 AD - Chinese Emperor Wang Mang, who ruled from year 9 to 23 AD, had one designed for his carriage. However, the concept itself may be centuries older than that: archeologists found Zhou Dynasty bronze castings of complex hinges with locking slides and bolts that date back to the 6th century BC and could have been used for umbrellas and parasols.

In fact, the very Chinese character for umbrella is a pictograph resembling the modern design of the device.
Later, the Chinese design was introduced to Japan and Korea and then to the Western world.

Ancient Egyptian fan-like umbrella

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian parasols resembled the flagellum, a decorated fan of feathers or palm leaves attached to a long handle.
However, the umbrella was generally used for practical, not ornamental purposes. Some paintings found on temple walls depict the figure of a god carried in a procession with a parasol held above his head.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Ancient Greek women started carrying a parasol as a fashion accessory as early as in the late 5th century BC. Men with umbrellas were considered effeminate; the image was even used in plays as a comical device. However, there was a brief period in Ancient Greek history (late 6th - early 5th century BC), when men with parasols were not ridiculed: the role of the male accessory gradually transitioned from swords, through spears and staffs to parasols and then nothing. When in fashion, the parasol was meant to display the luxury of its owner's lifestyle.

Umbrella on an ancient Greek funeral bed engraving
The use of parasol passed on to Rome, where it was also used by women only. Men, in their turn, resorted to the Umbraculum - a protective overhead device made from skin or leather. However, it does not appear that the Umbraculum has been used as protection from precipitation, but this is probably explained by the fact that most theatres were protected from rain by a velarium, which was drawn across the arena in case of a sudden shower.

Other Countries

  • Ancient Indians explained the creation of the umbrella with a Sanskrit legend of bow shooter Jamadagni and his wife Renuka, who fetched his arrows. Once it took Renuka one whole day to retrieve the arrow, and she blamed the delay on the scorching sun. Jamadagni got angry with the sun and shot an arrow at it. The sun called for mercy and presented Renuka with an umbrella.
  • Used by the Indian and Burmese princes, the chháta were large and heavy, requiring a special position in the royal household - an attendant who handles the umbrella.


Multi-tiered umbrella
  • In Siam, the king alone was allowed to use a multi-tiered umbrella. The Siamese noble would do with a single umbrella decorated with painted cloths. The Talapoins (a kind of Siamese monks) would cut and fold palm leaves to make umbrellas with a handle formed by the stem.
  • The Aztecs used pantli - an umbrella made from feathers and gold - as an identifying marker, equivalent to modern-day flags.

Europe

  • Before the umbrella was adopted from China, Europeans relied on cloaks to protect themselves from storms. One of the earliest written mentions of an umbrella in Europe dates back to 1611 when a traveler described Italian horse riders and their custom of carrying little canopies made from leather that were attached to their thigh and kept the sun away. The Italians called the things umbrellas, he mentioned.
  • In the 1660s umbrellas, or parapluies, began to appear in France - the fabric of parasols was coated with wax to make it withstand rain. But these things were so rare that the word parapluie did not enter the dictionary of the French Academy until 1718.
  • One of the first definitions of the umbrella appeared in Kersey's Dictionary in 1708, where it was described as a "screen commonly used by women to keep off rain".


An example of ladies using their umbrellas as fashion accessories
  • Paris merchant Jean Marius produced the first lightweight folding umbrella in Europe in 1710: it could be opened and closed and weighed less than 2 pounds. The King granted Marius an exclusive right to manufacture folding umbrellas for 5 years. One of his umbrellas was purchased by the Princess Palatine in 1712. Soon after that, it became an essential item for Parisian fashionistas.
  • In 1759, an umbrella combined with a cane was introduced. However, these umbrellas were not very popular. The chance of rain was too low to carry the comparatively heavy thing around; besides, those who needed an umbrella obviously didn't have a carriage and that said a lot about their financial state.
  • In 1769, a Parisian store began offering umbrellas to rent, and it soon became a common practice. Rental umbrellas were made of oiled green silk and marked with a number so that they could be found and reclaimed.
  • In the early 18th century, the English heard nothing about an umbrella or a parasol and, despite their great practical value, ridiculed Jonas Hanway - the first man who dared to carry an umbrella around habitually. 20 years passed before England accepted the device. Since 1788 the umbrella has come into general use.

Umbrella Evolution in Brief


Basic oil-paper umbrellas in Japan
  • The first umbrellas (the ones made by the Chinese) were made from paper. Then the Chinese learned to waterproof them with lacquer and wax.
  • Light silk and gingham were replaced by heavy oiled silk but the troublesome fabric drove some ingenious mechanical improvements of the umbrella construction.


The making of an umbrella with wooden ribs
  • Victorian umbrellas had frames made of wood but they were expensive and hard to handle when wet and this is why the steel-ribbed umbrella was invented.
  • Modern umbrellas have a collapsible telescopic steel trunk and easy-to-handle materials like plastic filmб nylon and cotton.
  • In fact, umbrellas still continue to develop. In 2008, the US Patent Office registered around 3, 000 umbrella-related inventions. However, Totes, the largest US umbrella producer, refuses to accept unsolicited proposals because it's hard to come up with an idea that hasn't already been implemented.
  • Cutting-edge umbrellas have outgrown the round canopy shape and are now reinforced to withstand stronger winds without turning inside-out. Stealth-shaped, scoop-shaped and even teardrop-shaped canopies were introduced in the past 20 years. Some umbrellas are also equipped with protective tips for its ribs, which are better known as eye savers!


Other Uses

Umbrellas are not only used for weather-related purposes.
  • In some religions, an umbrella is part of the sacred regalia. In others, it is used to show honor to a person or a holy object.
  • Umbrellas are used in photography as a light diffusion device or a glare shield.
  • Architects also find an unconventional use for the popular device.
  • Since the late 19th centuries, umbrellas have been considered to be a convenient improvised weapon against attackers.
And, of course, an umbrella is used as an icon for rain in weather alerts!
So, are you going to need an umbrella or a parasol today? 

Now, let's see if the history of the umbrella will improve your History knowledge in general!
Start this History Quiz and find out!
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