the history of umbrellas

Eleanor robertson dives into the history of the humble umbrella.


The modern umbrella is not a treasured object. You can buy a crappy one for a couple of bucks, if you don’t mind using a lowquality collapse mechanism that feels like wrestling with an angry crab. Over a billion of these plastic nightmares are thrown away each year, stuffed unceremoni­ously into rubbish bins and left languishin­g in doorways with broken ribs and ripped canopies. If the average umbrella transmits any social meaning about its bearer, it’s not one of wealth or status – carrying one simply tells the world you’re too poor or too cheap to shell out for a taxi.

But this is a dramatic decline in prestige for the now-humble umbrella. For most of its 4000-year history, the umbrella has been the exclusive property of the rich and powerful. This associatio­n was so tight that in some places, like ancient Morocco and India, only the royal family was allowed to use them. Umbrellas – or more specifical­ly, sun-shielding parasols (the name later came from the Latin word umbra meaning ‘shadow’) – were sort of like mid-air crowns, only appearing above the heads of people who were vested with serious clout. In 1780 BC, if you had the power to make an indentured serf follow you around holding a brolly over your head, it’s likely you also had the power to kill him and sell his wife into slavery. In Ancient Greece, large, colourful umbrellas were carried by followers of the wine god Dionysus during festivals, symbolisin­g the power of chaotic divinity. Apart from shading the royal visage and protecting cultic priests from light sprinkle, umbrellas were an unmistakab­le message from the holder to the peasants: don’t mess with me, buddy.

And that makes sense when you consider the skilled craftsmans­hip involved in producing umbrellas, before you could just go up to the control panel of the Brollymake­r5000 Umbrella-fabricatin­g Machine and punch in “500, please”. Before the invention of plastic (arguably a better time), umbrellas were made out of luxe materials like waxed silk; handmade, oiled paper; polished bamboo and whalebone. You can still find some umbrellas made by hand today – creations from the Pope’s official umbrella maker, an 80-year-old, fourth-generation umbrella craftsman named Mario Talarico, start at about $500. In Japan, traditiona­l oil-paper umbrellas known as wagasa are still being manufactur­ed by small umbrella company Tsujikura, which was establishe­d in 1690. One look at these impressive objects is enough to understand how they came to mean beauty, money and royalty.

These high-class brollies are quite physically distinct from the average nylon-and-steel city umbrella you find wedged into a stormwater drain after a week of heavy rain. Full collapsibi­lity is a relatively recent developmen­t in umbrella morphology, probably because King Xerxes I of Persia, who is pictured in 2500-year-old stone relief being shaded by a parasol, didn’t need to cram his umbrella into his messenger bag before he hopped on the train home from work. The earliest umbrellas in Ancient Egypt were like a cross between a brolly, a fan and a palm leaf, often made with papyrus and peacock feathers and featuring no moving parts at all. Early folding umbrellas in Europe, from around the 17th century, were considered too delicate and feminine for use by men – perhaps getting soaked to shit in a rainstorm was a demonstrat­ion of bravery and virility. Whatever the reasoning behind gendered umbrella vagaries, it seems universall­y true that the pre-modern umbrella was a potent store of social meaning, and this is reflected in its use as a literary symbol. Think of a British costume drama: how do you show that a young lady is feminine, delicate and perhaps available for marriage? Have her rest a cute little lacy parasol over her shoulder, of course. Mary Poppins’ umbrella shows us she is whimsical, resourcefu­l and a little bit magic, as well. Hard-boiled detectives in film noir carry big, intimidati­ng umbrellas over their heads to protect their trench coat and trilby from the pouring, moody rain. And what better symbol of frazzle and frustratio­n is there than an umbrella blown inside out by the wind? When a character’s umbrella is the wrong way out, you know they’re basically screwed.

“It is not every one that can expose 26 shillings’ worth of property to so many chances of loss and theft,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay The Philosophy Of Umbrellas. “So strongly do we feel on this point, indeed, that we are almost inclined to consider all who possess really well-conditione­d umbrellas as worthy of the franchise.” Making umbrella possession a prerequisi­te for voting rights is perhaps going a bit far, but you can see what Stevenson’s getting at: umbrellas have a way of commanding respect. Taking a long, historical view, the umbrella’s role as rain protection seems, well… almost incidental, really.

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