In Egypt where the umbrella is said to have originated, the walls of the Pharaoh’s tomb depict the king shaded by an umbrella held by a servant or slave. The umbrella was such an important part of life in Burma at one time that the government issued regulations for its size, shape and color. It protected royalty and women from the sun, presumably because hairdos, crowns or other head ornaments interfered with a hat.
The Greeks brought the sunshade umbrella to Europe. The Romans are credited with converting it to its dominant use today, shedding rain. One can imagine that as they traveled further North in search of lands to conquer, the Romans found less sun and more rain.
The basic design of the umbrella has changed little. The material of the ribs changed from wood to steel to aluminum. Each change lightened it until it was no longer necessary to have a servant carry it.
Umbrellas have grown and shrunk over the years. Miniatures grace exotic tropical punches, “beach” umbrellas shade bathing beauties, patios, farmers on their tractors and patrons of outdoor cafes. Christos’ 28 foot poppy-colored umbrella sprouted for a short time in the Tejon Pass, California, during the fifth year of a crippling drought.
The umbrella endured in basic black, like the Model T, until women’s fashions decreed that color be introduced. Its name changed to parasol. During the 1800s, no Paris showing of the latest fashions was complete without a presentation of parasol designs. Parasols, however, were much too delicate and elaborate to go out in the rain. Their deeper shape and smaller diameter turned them into a decorative accessory.
The handles adorning a parasol garnered as much personal interest as the color of its silk lining or fringe. Handles, such as the one made of sterling silver and mother of pearl, were treasured and carried by their owners through many cover changes. They were often carved of exotic woods, some even of woods especially trained to the correct shape while still growing on the tree. A horn, porcelain, gold or silver knob often terminated straight wood handles. Tasseled cords held these around a lady’s wrist. Department stores published rates for re-covering parasols to match a lady’s outfit.
Harrods of London’s catalogue in the Victorian era offered a buggy whip and parasol combination. One can imagine, I suppose, that a buggy was taken out only on sunny days or the horses needed encouragement in the rain.
The combination of the umbrella with other uses has been more successful and lasting. It is used as a walking stick in foggy, rainy areas today and to conceal a razor sharp dagger or poisoned needle in real life and adventure novels. In London, James Smith and Sons Limited will even customize an umbrella to your height.
Advertisements have exploited the umbrella. A young girl carrying an umbrella, salt spilling behind her, illustrates Morton Salt’s slogan, “When it rains, it pours.” Travelers Insurance used an umbrella as its trademark and all insurance companies sell excess coverage or “umbrella policies.”
In fiction, the umbrella’s magical properties were delightfully controlled by Mary Poppins and Scarlet O’Hara twirled the parasol flirtatiously.
Technological advances and mass production brought the umbrella to its self-opening egalitarian status we know today. We can own a wardrobe of umbrellas. This wardrobe is most likely to be collected for convenience instead of fashion, however. Umbrellas reside in the car and the office as well as the hall closet.
For novelty’s sake, we can purchase two handled umbrellas for courting purposes or one in the shape of our favorite team’s football helmet. The latter, for use by staunch supporters cheering their team in inclement weather, has a cutout which allows an unobstructed view of the field. For some unknown reason, the see-through bubble shaped umbrella of the late1960s folded quickly. The upside down umbrella to protect your dog followed suit.
Coming full circle, with an increase in our concerns about damage to our skin from the sun’s rays, we carry an umbrella now more frequently in its original capacity, portable shade.
We may no longer think if it as a fashion accessory, but until we can control the weather at will, the umbrella remains a necessity, rain or shine.