Parasols and Umbrellas: An Interesting History

Parasols and Umbrellas: An Interesting History


Once an object of royal privilege, the parasol had its origins in the ancient east, migrating from China to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent where its use was exclusively to protect from the sun as opposed to rain. It eventually spread to the arid climes of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but after the collapse of the Roman Empire its popularity waned for nearly one thousand years. Somewhere in the 14th century Italian renaissance a revival of the parasol happened primarily to shade the holy heads of popes, bishops, and doges, again the emphasis of use for sun protection.

Other European countries came late to the parasol party. When the first engravings of the parasol appeared in France in the 1620s, the parasol was still reserved for the wealthy and not at all like the delicate silk versions we imagine. As seen in the paintings below, they were unwieldy and required the assistance of a brawny servant who could manage its weight.

Measurements from the 1650s tell of parasols weighing three and a half pounds — three and a quarter pounds too heavy for a gentle lady to prop on her shoulder or hold over her head. Stripping the parasol would have rendered whalebones at lengths of 80 centimeters that were held together by a copper ring, a handle of solid oak, and a choice of heavy fabrics made of oilcloth, barracan, or grogram. In cheaper parasols, one might have used straw.

Around 1688 ladies parasols matured into an elegant accessory used much like a fan. At least in part the trend was influenced by the stories and paintings of distant Asian lands that were now accessible via land trade routes. Silk fringes and feather plumes, handles of Indian bamboos, delicate fabrics like silk and taffeta replaced the prior dull practicality. Fashionable ladies ran after their whims! In 1769 parasols were so trendy that a small business sprang up on the Pont Neuf where, at the cost of two farthings, those crossing the bridge could rent a parasol and return it on the other side. The French, one must assume, did not walk fast.

Most historians agree that the use of an umbrella to defend against the rain didn’t come until the 17th century in selected European countries, with the Italians, French and English leading the way. The parasols of the 1600’s were woven out of silk, providing limited water resistance, but the distinct canopy shape did help to some degree thus, even as fabric choices improved, the design remained largely unchanged.

Parasols and rain umbrellas were still considered a product only for distinguished women, with men facing ridicule if they were seen with one of those effeminate objects! Historical accounts claim they stuck to manly accessories like cloaks and hats to fend off the elements. Jonas Hanway, an English doctor who must have trudged through more than one rainy afternoon with a scowl on his face, thought this prejudice absurd. Hanway was a doctor, after all, and he was not going to risk his health on some silly society opinion!

Starting in 1756 he would walk boldly through the London streets, umbrella in hand, recalling:

“I covered it with skins, the hair upwards, so that it cast off the rain like a penthouse, and kept off the sun so effectually that I could walk out in the hottest weather, with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest. . .”  (Daniel Defoe’s lines written in 1719, one of the first references by an Englishman to the umbrella)

Hanway persisted, and it did take several decades, but by the late-1700’s and early 1800’s, the rain umbrella was a common accessory for both men and women. So much so that a “Hanway” evolved to become another name for a rain umbrella.

Dr. Jonas Hanway with his umbrella!




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