The History of the Foldable Umbrella
The umbrella is an ingenious invention that has provided people with portable protection against rain and sunlight for centuries. The concept of sheltering oneself from the rain or sun using a canopy-like structure has its roots in ancient civilizations and dates back thousands of years.
Today, we call these canopy-like structures either a parasol if they are used to protect us from the sun, or an umbrella, if they are used to protect us from the rain.
While the distinction is made in modern times, etymologically speaking, their names indicated that in their origins they served exclusively to protect from the sun’s rays. In fact, the word parasol comes from the French “parare” and “sol”, which means to “shield from the sun.” The word “umbrella” is derived from the Latin word “umbra”, meaning “shadow”.
Umbrellas were invented over 4,000 years ago and used in early civilizations in Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and China, but they were considered a mere sign of social pre-eminence or institutional respect, and those who took refuge under them did so while their servants or slaves carried them. They became a feminine accessory in the 16th century in Europe and began to be used as rain shelters by the early 18th century.
Umbrellas in Ancient Civilisations
The ancient Chinese have recorded the use of umbrellas both as protection from the rain and sun as far back as 2,400 years ago, including foldable umbrellas that could “slide and close.” They were made from silk and oiled paper that prevented the person underneath from getting wet. However, this practice was confined to the upper classes and Imperial carriages were outfitted with numerous umbrellas, serving practical and ceremonial purposes.
Japan developed its own version known as the Wagasa, featuring a paper canopy on a bamboo frame. Ancient Indian and Burmese kings and princes had large, elaborate umbrellas (called Chatra) in their throne rooms.
As civilizations expanded and trade routes were established, the use of umbrellas spread to different parts of the world.
Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians made umbrellas out of palm fronds, feathers, and stretched papyrus. These umbrellas were held by servants over the head of rules, or attached to their chariots to shield them against the scorching African sun.
Ancient Greece and Rome
The ancient Greeks and Romans introduced the earliest umbrellas, originally intended to shield against sunlight rather than rain. These early umbrellas featured large canopies made of leather, wood, or feathers, supported by long handles. These canopies were often intricately designed and symbolized social status.
These accessories were carried by female slaves and were associated with women to the point that if men used them, their masculinity was questioned. The Romans continued this practice, with high-status women being shaded by maid-servants holding parasols, while men who utilized parasols were considered effeminate
The Dark Ages of Umbrellas
There is a scarcity of historical records regarding the use of umbrellas in Europe during the Middle Ages, leading historians to believe that they were seldom employed in the region. Instead, people relied on cloaks to shield themselves from rain when necessary.
The Foldable Umbrella
It wasn’t until the 16th century that umbrellas re-emerged in European history, but their usage was primarily limited to the clergy of the Catholic Church in Italy. They soon gained popularity among the upper classes but were mainly used by women as fashion accessories rather than practical tools.
Parasols and umbrellas became increasingly popular in England and France during the 17th century. China and India had a longstanding tradition of using these items, and as Europe’s interactions with these cultures grew, their influence started permeating Western societies.
Until the beginning of the 18th century, the rain forced the gentlemen to walk around covered with a wide-brimmed leather hat and wide capes that preserved their clothes but did not prevent them from ending up drenched. The ladies, for their part, adopted such masculine capes, stayed at home or, if their obligations did not allow it, they submitted to the inclement weather. That was until a Frenchman in 1709, named Jean Marius had a practical and at the same time brilliant idea: the folding umbrella.
His umbrella consisted of a green taffeta cover duly rubberized to make it waterproof, arranged on a metal structure very similar to that of current umbrellas, which allowed it to be opened, closed and folded. It weighed between 140 and 170 grams, and once folded it could be stored in a bag or hung from the waist. To close it, a button was pressed and to open it you only had to extend the handle, made of steel, wood and copper. It also had a rope that prevented the wind from turning it and a cover to keep it folded.
Marius understood that advertising was the key to promoting and selling his umbrella. So, he went to Versailles, confident that if he had the endorsement of Louis XIV, his invention would quickly become one of the luxury items that were establishing Paris as the paradise for every fashion victim of the time.
The king was so impressed with this new device that in 1710 he granted Marius a royal privilege – the equivalent of modern patents – which guaranteed him a monopoly on the production of the folding umbrella for five years. Furthermore, anyone who copied it would be fined one thousand pounds, equivalent to about 40,000 euros today.
Marius plastered posters on all the facades of Paris. In them, a smiling couple sheltered under their umbrellas advertised the sale of the new invention at Marius’ establishment on Rue des Fossées, very close to Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which would become the flagship of French chic in the following centuries. The promotion was decisive, and within a few years, the use of the umbrella became widespread.
England did not shake off its antiquated view of umbrellas as being women-only accessories until 1750. It was then that British philanthropist and traveller Jonas Hanway started carrying one with him whatever he went, enduring ridicule from other men who thought anyone could just take a carriage if it rained.
Further Technological Advancements
Two notable individuals played a significant role in revolutionizing umbrellas. Hans Haupt is credited with a major innovation in 1928 when he invented the telescopic pocket umbrella. This ingenious design allowed the umbrella to collapse and expand, making it highly portable and convenient for everyday use. Then, in 1969, Bradford E. Phillips secured a patent for the first functional folding umbrella. This invention further improved the umbrella’s versatility, enabling it to fold compactly when not in use.
The foldable umbrella became a ubiquitous symbol of protection against the elements and a fashion statement across the globe. It has been featured in literature, paintings, and films, often representing elegance, sophistication, and even romance.
These breakthroughs in umbrella designs have had a lasting impact, making umbrellas more practical and user-friendly for people around the world. Today, this timeless invention continues to protect us from rain and sun while retaining its cultural significance and evolving with modern advancements.
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