The Se­cret His­tory of: the um­brella

The sta­ple of an au­tumn trip, cross­ing the globe from China to France

Lonely Planet (UK) - - Contents -

THE NEXT TIME YOU’RE shak­ing rain fu­ri­ously from a for­lorn um­brella (per­haps one that’s just in­verted in a gale, jab­bing you in the eye), con­sider its ori­gins. The um­brella has been around for 3,000 -odd years, and has taken a more spec­tac­u­lar jour­ney than most hu­mans: born as a para­sol in the East, it crossed con­ti­nents to be wa­ter­proofed in the West. The an­cient Egyp­tians prob­a­bly had ec­cen­tric proto-para­sols – feather- and palm-frond con­trap­tions shaped like over­sized fans – but it is In­dian leg­end that con­tains the um­brella’s most the­atri­cal ori­gin-story. Ac­cord­ing to po­etic San­skrit leg­end, there a heroic archer’s wife fainted in the af­ter­noon heat. The fu­ri­ous archer shot an ar­row at the sun; the sun begged for mercy and of­fered the archer the world’s first para­sol to give to his wife. Para­sols pro­lif­er­ated to pro­tect heads through­out East Asia and the Mid­dle East, but the first ev­i­dence of their pop­ping-up in Europe is a paint­ing from 1520, called Madonna dell’Om­brello. On this sin­gu­lar can­vas, a cherub shel­ters Mary with a large, red, um­brella-shaped ob­ject. Soon af­ter the ap­pear­ance of this an­gelic um­brella-bearer, the world was given the gift of the wax-coated um­brella, sup­pos­edly by the French, although the word para­pluie (shield the rain) didn’t find a place in a dic­tio­nary un­til 1718. The new wa­ter­proof ver­sion spread far and wide rapidly, though not, quite yet, to Bri­tain. The Bri­tish ini­tially shunned um­brel­las on the ba­sis that they were ef­fem­i­nate and French. There was a long, glum stretch when um­brel­las were dash­ingly twirled all over Europe (Parisian po­lice car­ried oiled green silk ver­sions), but they stayed scarce on these driz­zly shores. By the 1770s, how­ever, the Brits had put aside their re­serve, and the trickle of um­brel­las be­came a flood.

Per­haps the most fa­mous um­brella is that made by Robin­son Cru­soe. ‘I cov­ered it with skins,’ he says, ‘ the hair out wards, so that it cast off the rain like a pent- house and kept off the sun.’ The pas­sage gained such trac­tion that the first um­brel­las were known in France and Eng­land as ‘Robin­sons’. An English­man, Sa­muel Fox, in­vented the steel- ribbed frame in 1852, re­plac­ing the wooden set- up: masses lighter and eas­ier to fold when wet. The um­brella’s trans­for­ma­tion was com­pleted in 1928, when Slawa Horowitz, a Vi­en­nese stu­dent of sculp­ture, de­signed the com­pactable um­brella many of us carr y to­day. It was small and fold­able and she called it ‘Flir t ’. Dur­ing the 20th cen­tur y, um­brel­las were drenched in sym­bol­ism and mys­ter y. In the pre­lude to World War II, Neville Cham­ber­lain’s black um­brella be­came the most in­fa­mous image of Bri­tain’s pol­icy of ap­pease­ment. Dur­ing the Cold War, in Lon­don in 1978, Bul­gar­ian dis­si­dent writer Ge­orgi Markov was mur­dered by a poisoned dart, likely shot from the tip of an um­brella- gun. Um­brel­las are now one of the most pop­u­lar props in spy films.

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