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  • Rhoda Smith

The History of the Humble Umbrella



The name ‘umbrella’ comes from the Latin word ‘umbra’ which means shade or shadow, which means that umbrellas are in fact not only associated with rain, but also sunlight and the shadows the sun creates.


The umbrella has been around for almost 4000 years, first discovered in the historical Mesopotamia region in Western Asia. In those distant times, the sun was more problematic than the rain, and the mighty parasol emerged as a solution to this.


These emergent umbrellas were first made of palm leaves, papyrus and peacock feathers and they were exclusively reserved for the upper class in ancient Egypt and the Mesopotamia region. Although, this product was so heavy it often required several people to carry it! Parasols were also present in medieval China, where they were made from bamboo sticks, covered with leaves and feathers.



It was only by the 16th century that the umbrella as we know it became a reality; the decisive moment when oil and wax covers replaced the status quo covers on parasols. It is from this moment that the umbrella became an item to protect against bad weather and rain rather than the heat and sun. From this point on, the parasol and the umbrella have separate destinies.



In the 17th century, the umbrella became a hit in Western countries, especially in stylish Italy, France and Britain. At first, it was only considered a feminine accessory to protect women from the rain, but English men progressively adopted it through the 18th century.


Umbrellas became more and more popular with the European higher-class society in the 18th century, it even became a fashion accessory during the period of the French revolution. Craftsmen focused their work on the handles, to make works of art through refining and sculpting canes from prestigious materials like ebony.


The first European umbrellas had a whalebone structure, and even though the materials used have evolved immensely, this same basic structure remains important. The whale bone structure was replaced by wood, steel, then aluminium and now fiberglass. The oil cloth canvas has also been replaced by more and more resistant types of nylon.


The telescopic (foldable) umbrella was only born in the 20th century, in 1928. A compact, foldable umbrella was invented in France in 1701, but it was not telescopic. It was only by 1969 that the first foldable umbrella invention was patented.


But the story doesn’t end there, materials continue to evolve for more resistance and comfort which gives way to the development of new models: transparent umbrella, pocket-sized umbrella, inverted umbrellas, walking-stick umbrellas - the list goes on, as the umbrella has become both a practical object and an indispensable fashion accessory.


Stay tuned on further umbrella posts...

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