A Brief History of the Umbrella
In 2007 Rihanna topped the charts with the R&B; hit Umbrella. It is easy to take the lowly umbrella for granted but how did it become part of our culture?
In Mesopotamia over 3000 years ago the umbrella originated as an emblem of rank and distinction. At the time it was just an extension of the fan. The very first umbrellas did not protect the users from rain but instead were a protection against the harsh sun in the Mesopotamia desert. This was the basic use for this popular item for centuries.
The word umbrella actually stems from the Latin word umbra meaning shade. It is still practiced today in many African societies for a tribal chief to be shielded from the sun by an umbrella bearer who walks behind him following the old Mesopotamia tradition.
The Egyptian Umbrella
The Egyptian umbrella that came along in 1200 B.C. had acquired a strong religious significance. The Egyptians believed that the sky was formed by the body of the Goddess Nut. Because her body spanned the earth, man-made umbrellas became symbols of the earthly embodiments of Nut, and only nobility carried one.
Anyone who had an invitation to stand under a royal umbrella was a high honor. Umbrellas during this time were made from palm fronds, feather and stretched papyrus the same as umbrellas.
Romans and Greeks
The Romans and Greeks borrowed many ideas from Egyptians but they felt the umbrella to be too feminine for men. Only the women were seen with umbrellas unless a man was holding it for a female companion. Greek women loved umbrellas and they were carried by women of high rank and once a year the Feast of Parasols, which emphasized fertility, was staged at the Acropolis.
It was the parasol celebration held by Roman women that led to the oiling of the sunshades to waterproof them. Roman historians record that when outdoor events were drizzled on hundreds of umbrellas obstructed the view of the spectators. In the first century A.D., an edict was set forth by Emperor Domitian that women could protect themselves with the oiled umbrellas.
Well into the eighteenth century sun parasols and rain umbrellas were still considered mainly feminine accessories. Men wore hats and got soaked. Henri Estienne ,( 1528-1598) a French author from the sixteenth century, summed it up by writing that: “ If French women saw men carrying umbrellas, they would consider them effeminate.”
Jonas Hanway and the British Umbrella
It was a British gentleman, Jonas Hanway, who made it ok for men to carry umbrellas. It was by his perseverance, public ridicule, and humiliation, that he accomplished this feat. Hanway was a millionaire who made his fortune trading with the Far East. He retired at thirty –eight and volunteered in hospitals and orphanages. It was during this time that he took up the cause to popularize the umbrella.
In 1750, when umbrellas were still considered a female carry-all, Hanway seldom went outside without his umbrella. He carried it rain or shine. Where ever he went he always caused a sensation. He was laughed at, jeered, and even threaten on occasions for carrying the umbrella. Coachmen saw Hanway and his umbrella as a threat to their livelihood, and would steer the coaches to splash him with mud.
Umbrellas for One and All
This harassment failed to discourage Hanway from his umbrella. For the final thirty years of his life he rarely left home without his umbrella. Over time, men realized that a one-time investment in an umbrella was cheaper than taking a coach when it was raining. The economics of the situation or the stigma of it being a feminine article being lifted caused the umbrella to become part of everyday culture. When Jonas Hanway died in 1786, almost every one, male and female, carried umbrellas. In Britain, his home, they were referred to as Hanways.