Who Invented the Umbrella?
Most people own an umbrella whether they work from home, are in the corporate world or do not work at all. However few know the history behind this wonderful gadget. Do you know when it was first invented and who invented it?
Historians are unsure of when exactly umbrellas came into play. Some say Egypt while others say China. What is for sure is that they’ve been around a very long time. They weren’t intended to protect us from the rain, however. The ancient Greeks and Romans used them as shade from the sun. It was the Roman women who began to oil the cloth of the umbrella to protect it from moisture.
Umbrellas (or parasols) are defined as “a canopy device designed to protect from precipitation or sunlight.” The word evolved from the Latin ‘umbella’ (‘umbel’ being a flat-topped rounded flower) and ‘umbra’ meaning ‘shaded’, and from the Ancient Greek ‘ombros’ meaning shade or shadow.
It wasn’t until the 1600’s that European women began to carry umbrellas, mostly as shade from the sun.
Sometime in the 1700’s it became popular to carry wood and oilcloth models as protection from the rain.
In 1750, an Englishman named Jonah Hanway decided to carry an umbrella everywhere he went. This was unheard of. Only women carried umbrellas. Because of this, he became the subject of much ridicule, but at least he was dry. Ignoring the snickers of those around him, Hanway carried his umbrella for 30 years. By the late 1700’s however, it became more acceptable for men to carry “hanways.”
Collapsible umbrellas are said to have been invented in ancient China, approximately 1,700 years ago, however an ancient source arises in the ancient book of Chinese ceremonies entitled Zhou-Li (The Rites of Zhou), dated 2400 years ago. The Chinese character for umbrella is in fact a pictograph resembling modern day umbrellas in design. It is thought that its invention was first created by tying large leaves to bough-like ribs.
Umbrellas became almost extinct in Europe during the Middle Ages. It is thought that people depended on cloaks rather than umbrellas for protection against storms. It was rediscovered as a business opportunity in the late 16th century when it was introduced as the ‘parapluie’ (Fr: ‘against the rain’). It went into general use in the late 18th century. Jonas Hanway, the founder of the Magdalen Hospital, has the credit of being “the first man who ventured to dare public reproach and ridicule by carrying one habitually in London.” He died in 1786 and is said to have carried umbrellas for thirty years.
Victorian umbrellas had frames of wood or baleen but these were expensive and hard to fold when wet. Samuel Fox invented steel-ribbed umbrellas in 1852. In the mid-19th century the ‘parasol’ (Fr: ‘against the sun’) emerged. They were distinguished from umbrellas in being solely a sunshade and became an accessory of dress until the emergence of the automobile. (In Ancient Greece it was an indispensable accessory to a lady of fashion and its use was confined to women. For a man to carry one was considered a mark of effeminacy.)
Umbrellas have undergone numerous improvements over the centuries. Modern designs usually have a telescoping steel trunk and new materials such as cotton, plastic film and nylon have generally replaced the original silk, oiled paper, bamboo and wood.