Umbrellas and Parasols

Colored umbrellas

The origins of the word "umbrella" lie in the Latin umbra, meaning shade, while "parasol" comes from the Latin sol, meaning sun, and the two words were used interchangeably up until the middle of the eighteenth century (Farrell 1985). Since then, "parasol" has come to denote specifically a shade that protects against the sun, while "umbrella" indicates an item that provides protection from the rain.

What is An Umbrella?

Most umbrellas and parasols consist of a central stick to which a number of ribs are attached. The ribs support the cover or canopy and, in turn, they are supported by stretchers from the center of their length to the tubular runner that slides up and down the stick (Farrell 1985). Historians indicate that while umbrellas were always designed to fold, some parasols were made rigid, with the cover consisting of a single circular piece of waxed cloth or taffeta supported on cane ribs.

Early Umbrellas

Umbrellas date from over 3,000 years ago, and according to Crawford (1970), from early times they had religious and mythological symbolism. Most histories of the umbrella and parasol cite Egypt, China, and India as being important geographical locations in the pre-European history of the umbrellas.

In all such cultures where it has had a presence, the umbrella appears to have been associated with high status. Moreover, Stacey notes that: "The Oxford English Dictionary does in fact date the use of the word umbrella from 1653 as 'an Oriental or African symbol of dignity'" (1991, p. 114).

Parasols and Umbrellas in Asia

Many Asian countries have used the parasol in symbolic relation to their dignitaries, and Sangster notes: "In all eastern countries, with the exception of China and Turkey, the Parasol was reserved exclusively for the great men of the land." (1855, p. 18). According to Crawford (1970), Burma and Siam are two Asian countries that have the most regard for the umbrella as a symbol of sovereignty, and subsequently reports that the ruler of the ancient capital of the Burmese empire had the title of "King of the White Elephants and Lord of the Twenty-Four Umbrellas." The use of the umbrella as a symbol of respect appears to have continued into the twentieth century as Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the American President John Kennedy, was accorded the privilege of the ceremonial umbrella when she visited Burma in 1967 (Crawford 1970).

In China, too, umbrellas have been used to denote status from as early as the eleventh century B.C.E. Frames at that time were made of cane or sandalwood and the covers of leather or feathers, for wet and dry days (Stacey 1991). During the period of the Ming dynasty (1368- 1644), Crawford (1970) notes that ordinary people were not allowed to use umbrellas covered with cloth or silk: they had to use less prestigious items constructed from stout paper. Cheaper East Asian umbrellas are still made of paper manufactured from cotton rags, although better models use paper made from the bark bast of mulberry, which is much stronger. Covers are painted or lacquered and may be decorated with pictorial motifs or auspicious phrases (Crawford 1970).

Early European Use

Evidence of early European use of umbrellas is mentioned by Sangster: "We find frequent reference to the Umbrella in the Roman Classics, and it appears that it was, probably, a post of honour among maid-servants to bear it over their mistresses" (1855, p. 15). However, most historians indicate that the first European umbrellas were probably ceremonial items associated with the pope. There are extant depictions of the Emperor Constantine presenting Pope Sylvester I-who was in office from C.E. 314 to 335-with a brown and white striped umbrella (Crawford 1970) and Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447) incorporated an ombrellino into his coat of arms. Although the emblem is no longer used by the pope himself, it still appears on certain institutions and seminaries (Stacey 1991).

Carving of Asian woman holding umbrella

It is likely that trading activity in Asian colonies from the sixteenth century onward ultimately brought the umbrella to wider European attention. Portuguese women in India in the sixteenth century, for instance, would not venture out without an escort of slaves, one of whom bore a shade over his mistress to protect her from the sun and to emphasize her prestige, Crawford (1970) writes. The umbrella subsequently became a custom that returned with the Portuguese to Europe.

The umbrella or parasol started to appear elsewhere in Europe around this time and the French king, Louis XIII, is reported to have owned a good number of umbrellas. Between 1619 and 1637 he enlarged his collection to include eleven sunshades made of taffeta and three umbrellas made of oiled cloth trimmed with gold and silver lace (Crawford 1970).

However, the umbrella had no significant presence in Britain until the eighteenth century. Although there are records of some eighteenth century "church umbrellas" designed specifically for use by members of the clergy, the traveler and philanthropist Jonas Hanway is generally credited with introducing the umbrella to London (Stacey 1991). Born in 1712, he traveled extensively to the British colonies and to Europe. On returning to London to carry out his philanthropic work, he was reportedly ridiculed by sedan chair carriers for his use of the umbrella, possibly because they perceived it as a threat to their business (Stacey 1991). Hanway's now infamous umbrella is most likely to have been French in origin (Farrell 1985).

But it took time for the waterproof umbrella to attain popularity in Britain, perhaps because to be seen with one was regarded as indicative of insufficient funds for a carriage (Farrell 1985). Moreover, Sangster writes that: "The earliest English Umbrellas … were made of oiled silk, very clumsy and difficult to open when wet; the stick and furniture were heavy and inconvenient, and the article very expensive" (1855, p. 31). The ribs of umbrellas at this time were made of whalebone-which lost its elasticity when wet-and the oiled silk or cotton cover would quickly become saturated and leaky. Furthermore, walking-stick umbrellas were uncommon in England in the eighteenth century (although they were being marketed in France), so they generally had to be carried under the arm or slung across the back (Crawford 1970).

First Umbrella Patent

In terms of production, Stacey (1991) notes that the first patent was taken out on an umbrella in 1786, and there was subsequently a proliferation of developments with over 121 patents filed in the 1850s alone. But as Sangster points out, "The most important improvement dates from the introduction of steel instead of whalebone." (Sangster 1855, p. 58). The most successful umbrella designs involving metal ribs were those patented by Henry Holland of Birmingham in 1840, and later by Samuel Fox in 1852 (Farrell 1985).

By the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a thriving umbrella and parasol industry in Britain, and Sangster notes that these items were well represented in the great exhibition of 1851. In particular, the elaborate umbrella belonging to the Maharajah of Najpoor captured the imagination of visitors and drew attention from visitors: "The ribs and stretchers, sixteen in number, divided the Umbrella into as many segments, covered with silk, exquisitely embroidered with gold and silver ornaments" (1855, p. 63). There is, perhaps, just a hint of umbrella envy in his subsequent statement that "we were glad to find that the visitors turned away from this display of barbaric pomp to the plainer, but more valuable productions of our own land" (1855, p. 63). It was at this exhibition that two of the Sangster brothers, who were themselves umbrella manufacturers, won a prize medal for their alpaca-covered umbrellas. Inferior to silk, but far cheaper and sturdier, alpaca became a highly popular textile for umbrellas in Britain in the 1850s (Crawford 1970).

Ubiquitous Umbrellas

By the end of the nineteenth century, umbrellas had become less of a novelty and more of an item of convenience. Best quality umbrellas had covers made of silk, cheaper ones of cotton, and green was the most popular color although blue, red, and brown umbrellas were also available. Handles were made of horn, ivory, antler, or wood, and were often decorated with bands of gold or silver (Farrell 1985). By the close of the nineteenth century, The Tailor and Cutter reported that "fashionable men are wedded to them" (Stacey 1991, p. 27).

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, manufacturers of quality umbrellas and parasols had their own outlets, while cheaper products were sold in the streets by itinerant vendors (Crawford 1970). Many retailers would offer a repair service as well as new products, and by the nineteenth century there was a healthy trade in refurbished umbrellas (Farrell 1985).

Compared to umbrellas, parasols were light and elegant, and throughout the early nineteenth century a wide range of styles and color were available. They were frequently referred to in magazines and newspapers of the time (Crawford 1970), although parasols were not generally carried by men (Farrell 1985).

Lace umbrella

Covers were made of chiffon, silk, taffeta, or satin and were often decorated with fringes, lace details, and embroidery. Long wooden bone or ivory handles were elaborately carved to feature animals and insects, porcelain handles were painted with delicate floral designs and some parasol handles even featured gimmicks such as inlaid watches (Bordignon Elestici 1990). Around the mid-1800s, the en-tout-cas became popular, as it fulfilled the function of protecting against both the sun and the rain (Farrell 1985), but one of the most remarkable parasols documented belonged to Queen Victoria, which she had lined with chain mail following an attempt to assassinate her (Stacey 1991).

The introduction of the automobile in the early years of the twentieth century initially encouraged the development of driving-specific parasols and umbrellas (Farrell 1985), but the new vehicles probably precipitated the decline of umbrella use, as people were less often on foot when out of doors (Crawford 1970). However, even during the interwar years (1918-1939), an umbrella was still regarded as "part of the unofficial uniform of a gentleman in London" (Farrell 1985, p. 79).

Although parasols, particularly those that emulated the style of flat, oriental sunshades, were popular up until the 1920s, the growing fashion for tanned skin effectively put an end to widespread use of the parasol by the 1930s. Looking to North America, Stacey notes that "neither the umbrella nor the parasol gained quick acceptance in America (1991, p. 59) and although Sidney Fisher's Men, Woman and Manners of Colonial Days, published in 1898, recorded sightings of umbrellas and parasols in Philadelphia in 1771, as a means of keeping off the sun they were reportedly regarded as a "ridiculous effeminacy" (Stacey 1991, p. 59). By the 1950s, however, Americans had championed the "unisex" umbrella, a distinct shift away from the gender-specific umbrella styles of Europeans (Stacey 1991).

The British umbrella trade had flourished in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, as the colonies could be relied on to supply raw materials including canes, whalebone, horn, and ivory, and a thriving textile industry provided fabrics such as silk and cotton gingham for making covers. As a result, by 1851 London had about 1,330 workers in the trade, a third of whom were in the Stepney area of East London. But following the collapse of the parasol market in the 1930s and the domination of the umbrella market by cheap imports from the 1940s onward, the British umbrella industry effectively disappeared (Crawford 1970).

Farrell (1985) indicates that over time, each part of the umbrella and parasol has been the object of improvement, including the innovation of the cranked stick, which allowed the open umbrellas to be centered over the head rather than to one side, and the cycloidal umbrella, which had the stick placed off-center. Since the nineteenth century, however, the only significant structural development has been Hans Haupt's telescopic umbrella in 1930, and improvements to allow automatic opening, but patents continue to be filed at the rate of about twenty a year (Stacey 1991). Use of nylon covers since the 1950s was the only other notable development in umbrella design in the twentieth century (Farrell 1985).

Europe's oldest and biggest umbrella shop continues, in the early 2000s, to trade under the name of James Smith & Sons (Umbrellas) Ltd., which was established in 1830. According to the London and Home Counties Survey (1957), "at one period umbrellas were actually manufactured inside the shop in a space four feet wide, and stock had to be stored in the window," and the company was one of the first to use "Fox Frames" in their umbrellas. In addition to conventional umbrellas, the firm has also specialized in the production of ceremonial umbrellas for traditional rulers in Africa.

Despite its pan-global origins, the umbrella has come to be regarded, in literature at least, as a quintessentially English item, perhaps due to the inclement weather for which Britain is famous. Stacey notes that Max Beerbohm said: "What is an Englishman without his umbrella? … It is the umbrella which has made Englishmen what they are, and its material is the stuff of which Englishmen are made" (cited in Stacey 1991, p. 7). In the twenty-first century, however, cheap and poorly made folding umbrellas have become disposable items, displacing durable, high-quality umbrellas in most parts of the world.

See also Protective Clothing; Raincoat; Rainwear.


Bordignon Elestici, Letizia. Gli Ombrelli [Umbrellas]. Milan: BE-MA Editrice, 1990.

Crawford, T. S. A History of the Umbrella. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1970.

Farrell, Jeremy. Umbrellas and Parasols. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1985.

"Histories of Famous Firms." London and Home Counties Survey (part 4), 1957.

Sangster, William. Umbrellas and Their History. London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1855.

Stacey, Brenda. The Ups and Downs of Umbrellas. Stroud, U.K.: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1991.

Umbrellas and Parasols