The bizarre history of the umbrella

We’ve made a quite drizzly Spotify playlist for you to enjoy whilst reading this article. It’s open and collaborative – so please add in your own songs all about inclement weather. Can you think of any we missed?


You own one. Maybe two.

It’s probably black, unless you’re kooky.

And, scientifically, they’re the easiest item in your house to lose.

Whether you call it a brolly, parasol, parapluie, or bumbershoot (and oh, how I hope you call it a bumbershoot), an umbrella is an indispensable friend. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Forthwith: an abbreviated history of the umbrella.

Sun protection

These days, most people use umbrellas for rain. But it was originally invented as protection from the sun.

Portable canopies designed to shade a person sprang up as early as 4th century B.C. in ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, and India. They looked similar in shape to the modern umbrella, but were made out of materials like leather, leaves, or even feathers.

Such inventive parasols weren’t for everyone’s use, however. In some cases, Kings mandated who was and was not allowed to shield themselves from the sun. The most favored subjects were, of course, royalty, clergy, and other aristocrats.

Oh yes, and women. Because they were fair, delicate creatures. Presumably.

Working-class men were expected to simply sweat.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

But until the 17th century, regardless of gender or social standing, everyone just got wet when it rained.

Sometime around the early 1600s, the French, English, and Italians began to think it might be nice to keep from getting soaked. The earliest defenses against downpours were made out of woven silk. They weren’t ultra effective, but they were probably better than that busted one which flips inside out that you can’t seem to lose.

However, protecting oneself from the rain was strictly for women, especially high-class women. Men endured the rain, I’m sure with great panache.

If you found yourself in a storm and weren’t dirt poor, you hailed a coach. But if you didn’t, don’t worry – getting soaked to the bone and catching a chill was manly.

France decides to stay dry

The French were the first to realize that getting drenched is worth avoiding.

In the early 18th century, Paris merchant Jean Marius invented a lightweight, waterproof parasol. In 1712, French Princess Palatine purchased one – and set off a craze for noblewomen across the country. Soon enough, French men ducked under the protective umbrellas as well.

And, of course, the English made fun of them. “Mincing Frenchmen,” they were.

The stubbornness of Jonas Hanway

It took one particularly bold, stubborn Englishman to bring the umbrella to soggy Britain.

Jonas Hanway got the idea on a trip to Persia, where he saw women using Chinese parasols imported from the Silk Road. He fashioned his own waterproof version back in London and brought it everywhere with him.

He was mocked relentlessly.

No, really. People threw literal rubbish at him.

Everyone reacted with outrage to Jonas’ flaunting of the rules. After all, no true English gentleman would have been caught dead in public with such a pompous accessory.

And it was this way for nearly 30 years. Did I mention Jonas was stubborn?

Carriage drivers were especially ornery. If others followed Jonas’ lead, it could mean a serious cut out of their profits. Once, a driver attempted to run Jonas over with his coach. Jonas quickly reacted by wielding his umbrella to “give the man a good thrashing.”

The umbrella catches on at last

By the time Jonas Hanway was ready to kick the bucket, he had started a trend. Figures.

At the end of the 18th century, English men and women alike were all carrying their own umbrella, which they often referred to as a “Hanway.”

Their canopies were typically made out of alpaca hide or oiled canvas, their spokes were either wood or whalebone (exotic!), and their handles were generally hard woods like ebony.

The pocket version was invested by Hans Haupt in 1928, making them much easier to forget in unfortunate places.

These days, over 330 million umbrellas are sold yearly worldwide, mostly because everyone keeps misplacing theirs. And very few people get pelted with trash for using them.

Finally, because I know you want to know: the umbrella hat was first patented in 1880. It originally included a dashing mosquito net as well. Alas, it’s not caught on quite as well as the original.


2 Comments

  1. Pat Pickett Reply

    Never liked umbrellas and never bothered to carry one. Yes, I get wet but I also dry off. Frankly, i love the rain on my face and the wind blowing through my hair. Never lost an umbrella cause I never had one as an adult except the one I received at a baby shower!

    • Blustery days are just about the best, aren’t they? As long as it’s not too nippy out, a drop or two isn’t going to stop me from taking a jaunt around town.

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