The History of the Umbrella

Just when it’s time to return the snow shovel to the garage, it’s time to find the umbrella. To mark the upcoming April showers, March has been named national umbrella month, but you won’t find a Hallmark card celebrating the occasion. However, this “portable roof” actually tells a lot about the person who’s carrying it. Though it’s often an under-appreciated invention, the umbrella has kept us dry for the last 4,000 years.

No one is positive who invented the first umbrella, whether it was the Chinese or the Egyptians. At that time, the umbrella was the equivalent of a brand new Lexus or a mansion today. Only the wealthiest individuals owned umbrellas and they were used to block out the intense sunlight. Slaves held the umbrella over the head of a king. The larger the umbrella, the greater the wealth of its owner. The Ancient Egyptians valued their umbrellas so much they were even included in their paintings and sculptures.

Eventually the Chinese waterproofed the umbrella with wax and people around Europe caught wind of this amazing invention. In the 1700s Jonas Hanway, a Persian traveler who was suffering from an illness at the time, walked through the streets of England, a “brolly” towering above his head as he managed to catch the attention of everyone else on the street. To his surprise, people hurled mud and rocks at him, reasoning that if God made rain to water both plants and humans then Hanway’s newfangled domed contraption was getting in the way. However, the people of England soon grew tired of walking around soaked to the bone.

Once the umbrella was introduced, however, it took awhile to catch on. Men especially were hesitant to walk around with what had formerly been viewed as a women’s fashion accessory. The use of the umbrella continued to spread, but it was considered daring to be the first one in a city to walk the streets carrying an umbrella. In 1830, James Smith and Sons opened London’s first umbrella shop and is still in operation today.

The average household is said to have an average of 3.8 umbrellas. People have hypothesized that this .8 is the result of the twisted metal skeleton that subsiquently rests in the back of cars and closets. However, with spring’s first drop of rain, we still continue to buy new umbrellas, going through many different shapes, sizes and colors in a lifetime. The lifespan of an umbrella is seemingly short: if it doesn’t collapse under a gust of wind, it will no doubt be left in the corner of a store by a shopper. According to Isotoner, one of the largest marketers of umbrellas in the US, roughly 40 million umbrellas are imported into the US (mostly from China) every year.

Recently, retailers have given us many reasons to form an attachment to our umbrellas. The expression “it’s raining cats and dogs” is a valid one, as many umbrellas now offer styles in every imaginable animal print. There are also umbrellas that are made to keep dogs dry on their daily walks. On a stormy day, a bright blue sky with puffy white clouds is easily accessible just by opening an umbrella. And many umbrellas now display advertisements as well as famous works of art. Today, people can spend anywhere from five dollars to 150 dollars depending on the features they desire. Currently the umbrella is becoming smaller, lighter and able to withstand the toughest wind and also resist lightening. The smallest to date is a mere seven ounces and approximately the size of a cell phone. Totes is working on developing an even smaller model complete with a light in the handle.

Viewed in the past foremost as a fashion item, the umbrella once had interchangeable handles and served a purpose similar to that of jewelry. The handles were carved in Europe by artisans and were often made from ivory or whalebone. In the past, the umbrella was covered with feathers to resemble a water bird and then later they were made from oiled silk. The umbrella got its cover in the 1930s and today an umbrella cover museum in Maine boasts a collection of over 300 covers from 30 countries.

But what many umbrella owners don’t realize is that with the ownership comes responsibility. Umbrellastand.com, one of the most popular places to buy umbrellas online has devised a list of “umbretiquette,” which formally highlights the responsibilities of umbrella ownership: an umbrella should never be opened indoors; when passing through a tight space, the taller person should be the one to raise the umbrella; an umbrella should never be opened at a sporting event; after an umbrella has blown inside out more than six times it must be replaced and finally, one must be extremely cautious when changing direction with an open umbrella, lest an eye might get poked.

Umbrellas aren’t just reserved for kings and pharos anymore. In fact, more attention is now drawn to the person who isn’t carrying an umbrella. Mary Poppins loved hers and we wouldn’t be Singing in the Rain without them. This March raise an umbrella to spring and use this clever invention not only to dodge raindrops but to also show off your personality.

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