The Secret History of: the umbrella
The staple of an autumn trip, crossing the globe from China to France
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.