Rain or shine lots of people want them and they never go out of fashion. For the people who make umbrellas the last 3000 years or so have been a long run of steady employment. They were making them in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome and James Smith & Sons on New Oxford Street in London has been selling them since 1830. Sometimes referred to by slang terms, they are alternately a brolly, a gamp or a bumbershoot. Our word “umbrella” comes from the Latin word umbra meaning shade. The word parasol is often heard, but is more often used to refer to something that shades the sun, while umbrellas are more properly for protection from rain.
The first umbrellas were not constructed for warding off rain, but to provide shade for royal personages in a land where rainfall was rare and the desert sun harsh. In early middle eastern societies the umbrella was an emblem of rank and distinction, and was carried by servants who tilted them over the heads of leaders riding in chariots. For centuries the umbrella served as a sunshade. In the even hotter land of Egypt, umbrellas made of palm fronds, feathers and stretched papyrus served the same purpose. There, those invited to stand in the penumbra of the king or pharaoh’s umbrella were seen as having the honor of his protection.
There was a great deal of borrowing from Egypt in Greek and Roman culture, but men saw the umbrella as an effeminate device and relegated it to the realm of women’s accessories. Early Greek texts are full of derisive references to men who carry sunshields like women. It was acceptable only for the man to publicly hold an umbrella over the head of a female companion. Greek women were especially fond of parasols and even engaged in an annual fertility procession called Feast of Parasols. But it was Roman women who began the practice of oiling paper sunshades to waterproof them for use in rain as well as bright sun. Historians have recorded the annoyance of male spectators at those times when hundreds of women with umbrellas blocked the view in the crowded amphitheaters.
By the eighteenth century umbrellas and parasols were common in Europe, but still considered a woman’s accessory. Men wore hats and got wet; women used umbrellas and stayed at least partially dry. In France of the 1700s men with umbrellas were labeled as effeminate by women. A wealthy British gentleman named Jonas Hanway had a great passion for umbrellas and never left his house without carrying a furled umbrella. Through dogged perseverance, and daily ridicule he eventually made rain gear respectable for men. Finally, the stigma of effeminacy long associated with umbrellas faded into the past. By the time of his death umbrellas were being called “Hanways.”
While the Japanese cornered the market in the 1950s, today most umbrellas are made in China, where one city alone boasts of more than a thousand umbrella factories. US sales total thirty-three million annually, a number worth $348 million. The first dedicated umbrella shop in the world was the above mentioned James Smith & Sons in London. Samuel Fox invented the steel-ribbed umbrella in 1852. The first collapsible umbrellas were made by Totes Incorporated of Loveland, Ohio in 1969.
Interesting bit of trivia: Brolliology is the study of umbrellas.