The story of the umbrella and parasol | Sunday Observer

The story of the umbrella and parasol

Oil paper umbrellas
Oil paper umbrellas

Umbrellas and parasols are very much a part of our everyday life. But do you know how they came to be? Well, here is the story.

The word umbrella comes from the Latin word ‘umbra’ meaning shade or shadow or ‘umbel’ which is a flat topped rounded flower. Parapluie in French is made up of para and pluie (pluie comes from the Latin word for rain pluvia) and means to protect from or stop rain.

The word parasol also has its roots in Latin and comes from the word ‘sol’ which when translated directly into Italian means sun. ‘Para’ is Italian for protecting and these two words combined together makes up the word parasol literally meaning protection from the sun.

According to the Wikipedia parasol originates from the French and is a combination of para meaning to stop and shield and sol meaning sun. Thus, parasol in French also means stop or shield from the sun.

Umbrealls are generally used as protection from the rain and parasols are usually used as sunshades.

Umbrellas and parasols (sunshades) date back to thousands of years. One of the earliest records of umbrella use comes from ancient Egypt over 4,000 years ago. These early umbrellas would have been made from leaves and wood and were meant to be used for protection from the sun and not from rain. They were also known as flagellum (fan of leaves).

Ancient Egyptian art and artifacts show Royalty and other important people using umbrellas and parasols. These were usually held over them by people such as courtiers, attendants and slaves. The Assyrians too used umbrellas and parasols. Sculptures and a bas relief at Nineveh depict the use of umbrellas.

Today, China is one of the largest, global manufacturers of umbrellas and parasols. It was around the 11th century BC that the Chinese began to make and use umbrellas and parasols. They were made of silk or paper and animal bones. Some had elaborately carved ivory handles and were also mult-layered and multi-tiered.

They were beautifully painted with floral motifs, dragons and other decorative items. With the establishment of trade routes between the East and the West the umbrella went from China to the West.

Some of the earliest Chinese umbrellas were made of leather and were very expensive and only the royalty, nobility and the rich could afford them.

Subsequently, paper umbrellas and parasols came into being and were quickly embraced by Chinese women to protect their porcelain skins. Thailand, Korea and Japan have been using parasols and umbrellas from ages past.

History reveals that umbrellas and parasols came into use in ancient Rome and Greece around the first millennium BC. A mechanism to open and shut umbrellas was also devised at this time. Again, it was the royalty and the upper classes who used umbrellas and they were held by servants and slaves. Grecian vases depict umbrellas and parasols.

The Aztecs too used umbrellas and historical records show that the At ditrict of Tenochtitlan used an umbrella of feathers and gold as a pantil, an identifying marker similar to a flag.

Wherever they were in use parasols and umbrellas remained mainly as a women's’ accessory and men did not use them.

After the breakup of the Roman Empire and the troubled times that followed the use of the umbrella and parasol disappeared from Western society.

Umbrellas and parasols made a comeback in the West especially in Italy, France and England. They were mainly used as sunshades in the beginning. There was also a combination of the parasol and umbrella called en-tout-cas, which is French for ‘ anything.’ Though they became popular in the West, parasols and umbrellas still remained as an accessory for women until 1712 when an Englishman John Hanway started using an umbrella. For thirty years he was ridiculed but then other gentlemen too realised the worth of an umbrella, especially in the wet climate of England and started to use them. Some English people call the umbrella a Hanway while a commonly used English shortened form for the word umbrella is brolly.

The first all umbrella shop in England was James Smith and Sons opened in 1830 and is still there in New Oxford Street. These early English umbrellas were made of alpaca or oiled canvas with handles from hardwoods like ebony. In 1852 Samuel Fox designed and patented the steel ribbed umbrella and founded the English Steel Company to manufacture them.

The umbrella underwent many important technological changes in the 20th century. In 1928 a Viennese student in Salzburg, Austria invented the foldable pocket umbrella while in 1969 Bradford E. Phillips designed a working folding umbrella.

Here at home in Sri Lanka the very first umbrellas were banana leaves or the kola patha, the covering of the arecanut leaf’s stem. Sybil Wettasinghe’s Kuda Hora (Umbrella Thief ) is an interesting story about the early banana leaf umbrella for children.

Now, the umbrella ranges from the large golf and beach umbrellas to the tiny cocktail umbrella used to decorate cocktails or to be used as a swizzle stick.