Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
The concept of the umbrella has long preceded its invention. Man has been consumed by his necessity and obsession for shelter, comfort and convenience since the beginning of time. It is only natural that he would want to have these simple, often taken for granted, luxuries with him at all times. The umbrella is the embodiment of those luxuries in a portable and easy to use device. The umbrella can be used for either protection from severe weather elements or from the sun. When it is used against severe weather elements, such as rain and sleet, it is referred to as an umbrella. The word umbrella comes from the Latin word umbra, which means shadow. However, when it is used as protection against the sun, it is referred to as a parasol. The word parasol is derived from para, meaning stop, or against, and sol, which means sun; para (stop)-sol (sun). Furthermore, no one knows exactly when or where the first umbrella was invented; archeologists and historians best guesses are either Ancient Egypt or Ancient China. Even though the umbrella was invented many thousands of years ago, it has survived relatively unchanged to the modern day because of it is the single best thing at doing what it does. In addition to its competitive dominance, the concept of the umbrella has helped build associations that have been essential to its survival. I acknowledge that there are many ways to unpack the umbrella: fashion, comfort, convenience, literature, art, and so on. I will be focusing on how the umbrella has survived throughout the ages because of its relationship will religion, royalty and its duality with the parasol up until the destruction of cultural norms in England and new production techniques propel the umbrella into a household name.
Ancient Egypt, possibly the birthplace of the umbrella, has such a rich history that we cannot know for sure when exactly the umbrella comes into existence. What we do know is that the umbrella was more popular as a parasol and mostly used by royalty and priests. These umbrellas were extremely heavy and their intricate designs made them cumbersome to carry. Some of the earliest examples that prove they existed date around 1200 BCE. However, Ancient Egypt’s relationship with umbrellas is much deeper than that. “The Egyptians believed the sky was formed by the body of their celestial goddess Nut, who spanned the Earth, touching it only with her toes and finger-tips. Shy, The Egyptian equivalent to Atlas, supported Nut with one hand on her breast, the other on her mid-thigh, so that her star-spangled belly formed the arch of the heavens” (19, Crawford). These two look like a giant umbrella, and it is from this that the concept of the umbrella as a symbol of religion grew. In addition, the umbrella was very important because of its relationship with the Khabit, or shadow. The Ancient Egyptian’s believed that a person’s generative powers lie in their Khabit, which is a crucial part for their resurrection in the afterlife. Since the umbrella was so closely related to the Ancient Egyptian’s concept of heavens and afterlife, it should come as no surprise that royalty adopted it as a sign of their sovereignty. The royal colors are red, yellow and blue. Umbrellas would often be carried by servants over their master’s heads, but for longer trips, and in times of war, they could be fastened to their chariots. The umbrella will always have a place in Egypt because of its associations with religion and royalty, as well as its ability to shield people from the scorching Egyptian sun. In addition, the Egyptians are thought to be responsible for the spread of the umbrella northward into southern Europe, especially Portugal. Anc. Egypt hieroglyph PIC, seen everyone from graves to hunting to drawings.
Ancient China, like Ancient Egypt, has a rich history with umbrellas and is also thought to be the birthplace of the umbrella. A book of ancient Chinese ceremonies, the "Tcheou-Li, or The Rites of Tcheou," says that upon the imperial cars the “dais” should be placed. "The figure of this dais contained in the Chinese edition of Tcheou-Li, and the particular description of it given in the explanatory commentary of Lin-hi-ye, both identify it with an Umbrella” (Sangster). In addition, the umbrella can be found in the tomb of Wang Kuang, circa 25 BCE, as well as many others before and after him. Although no one knows for certain whether it was Egypt or China who first invented the umbrella, it was the Chinese who invented the first collapsible umbrella and were the first to waterproof them by waxing the material. The early Chinese umbrellas were made of oiled paper and bamboo, and the staff would be hollowed in a specific way to allow it to open and close like a modern day telescope, thus creating the collapsible umbrella. One way the Chinese and Egyptians differ is that it was commonly accepted for Chinese people of all classes to have an umbrella. However, it was very easy to tell people apart because royalty and high-ranking officials usually had servants carry their umbrellas for them, which were made of the finest silk and decorated with gems and precious metals compared to the commoners bamboo and cloth umbrella. Yellow is China’s royal color, only royalty could possess a yellow umbrella in the court; all other honorary umbrellas in were either red or blue. Furthermore, one of the largest factors in the shaping of the umbrella in China, namely its design and symbolism, took place in the 7th century with by arrival of Buddhism. The umbrella was one of Buddha’s eight treasures of the world, and symbolized the heavens. Instances of the umbrella can be seen throughout various ceremonies, and were particularly evident at funerals. There were different umbrella types that indicated the rank of the deceased, blue and white silk with yellow dragons for upper class and similar fashions except with cloth for the lower class. In addition, it was customary to burn a red umbrella thirty-five days after a funeral. Spawning from religious symbolism, the umbrella soon became engrained in the modern architecture of the country. The umbrella shape can be seen in the Stupa and Peshawar, which later turned into the Chinese pagoda. Lastly, the Chinese are accredited with the rise of the umbrella in neighboring territories due to their influence as well as Europe via the Silk Road.
Religion has played a major role in shaping society’s attitudes toward the umbrella and ensuring the umbrella’s survival since ancient times. As illustrated above, both Ancient Egypt and Ancient China have strong religious ties to the umbrella through associations of myths, religious texts and symbolism. The umbrella can attribute its survival to many ancient and modern religions. I will start with earlier examples from Ancient India to Ancient Greece and then from Ancient Rome into the use of the umbrella in the Catholic Church up until it gained popularity in the late seventeen and early eighteen hundreds.
Ancient India was heavily invested in the umbrella through religion. One of the many religious tales tells how the god Brahma held a white umbrella over Buddha’s head when he was born (38, Crawford). In addition, India is responsible for introducing Buddhism to China, which lead to the popularity of the umbrella in not only religion, but also architecture, design and spiritual significance. Moreover, a common element is observed in burial sites of many Ancient Indian peoples, the Koda-kallu. The Koda-kallu is the term that refers to a gravestone in the shape of an umbrella. This was thought to symbolism the deceased accent into the heavens and can be seen in burials as well as entrances to tombs. The tradition religious umbrella had three canopies, each with a specific meaning: canopy of the heavens, canopy of mortals and the canopy of eternal emancipation (40, Crawford). The umbrella forever remained engrained in Indian culture, and as I will explain later, was also associated with royalty. Ancient China and India were the early supporters of the umbrella in the East, now we will move on to the west
The umbrella also emerged as a religious item in Ancient Greece. It was used by Dionysus’ followers in festivals and processions, usually as a brightly colored parasol. In addition, this lead to the use of the umbrella as a mating tool for women. They began using it to ward off or flirt with advancing gentlemen. In addition, it is also associated with the gods, specifically Demeter and Persephone, which symbolized the harvest. A white umbrella would often be seen or used to pray toward the gods for fertility. It is important to mention that the umbrella was more often used as a parasol then as the tradition umbrella we now use today. This will be mentioned more in depth later on in the section about the parasol umbrella duality.
Moving on from Ancient Greece, the next place to go to is Ancient Rome. The umbrella took on a similar role for the Ancient Romans as it did for the Ancient Greeks. It was immediately adapted to the roman god Bacchus, roman version of Dionysus, and worshiped for its agricultural significance. Some followers of Bacchus created a new cult of their own, the cult of Isis. The cult of Isis was a suspicious cult of women who performed secretive ceremonies and were accused of cannibalism and killing men as human sacrifices. The umbrella continued as a symbol of fertility until the conception of the Catholic Church, which strengthened the umbrella religious symbolism, as well as it being used publicly as a form of comfort and shelter.
Shortly after the decline of the Roman Empire and well into the Middle Ages, the umbrella owed most of its use to clergy and royalty. The Catholic Church proved to be a crucial component in the continued use and survival of the umbrella. The umbrella was used mostly as a parasol for important religious figures as they we often out in public, but there were also umbrellas that could be used if weather became more unpleasant. The umbrella can be seen in a variety of forms relating to the church, such as mosaics, portraits, illustrations of religious events and literature. An interesting figure was the Doge of Venice, who was said to have concealed in his umbrella an eight-inch dagger. Moreover, probably the most notable use of the umbrella is on the Coat of Arms of the Sede Vacante. When the seat of the Pope is vacant, the Coat of Arms is displayed with a gold and red umbrella above keys to signify his absence. Traditional papal colors for umbrellas were gold, red, and white. Another important instance in which the umbrella is present is in the fresco of the Virgin Mary at Addis Ababa, it portrays the burial of Virgin Mary and she is accompanied by two parasols as she ascends towards the heavens. It is through these powerful representations that the umbrella sustained its place as a symbol of religion. Moreover, it has offered protection and comfort to clergymen through the Middle Ages, which proved to be essential to the umbrella’s survival in such a time when it was scarce throughout Europe.
In addition to the umbrella’s association to religion, another important association and maybe the most critical association is the one it has with royalty. The umbrella has been an essential piece of royal insignia since the beginning of its inception. It brought shade to royalty during times of excessive heat, and brought them shelter in times of severe weather. It has long been a luxury item of the rich and famous, but nothing can compare to nobility. In ancient times, the umbrella was reserved for royalty because of the comfort it provided and soon became a universal symbol for status and luxury.
Although there have been countless countries that have used and use the umbrella as part of their royal insignia and to designate rank among high officials, there seems to be overlapping trend; that no one of extreme importance ever held their own umbrella. Moreover, besides having a servant carry their umbrella, higher officials umbrellas were made of rare fabrics, gems and very elaborate designs. Furthermore, the umbrella primarily made its appearance as a distinguished parasol, instead of an efficient umbrella against the elements.
The umbrella and royalty have been associated with each other since ancient times. There are drawings inside tombs in Ancient Egypt that show the pharaoh being escorted by umbrella holders in order to protect him from the Egyptian sun. In Ancient China, the royal family were the only ones permitted a yellow colored umbrella inside the court. Furthermore, different colored umbrellas made of different materials were given to officials as a token of the power they wielded and distinguished them from each other and other citizens. The Ancient Romans were very taken up with the umbrella. They enjoyed it so much that the ruler had an awning put into the Colliseum so as to shield people from the sun or elements. Although the umbrella has a strong relation with each of the nations mentioned above, and many more, the major associations with royalty came from the Middle East.
Ancient India viewed the umbrella with such reverence toward royalty that two princes were named Ch’hatra-pati, which means Lords of the Umbrella. Another story, taking place in Burma, claims that their father lined up all of his sons and dropped an umbrella, and whichever son it landed on would be the ruler. I do not claim that this method is rational or the best, but it is a great example of about how important the umbrella was to royalty and what it represents. In addition, Siam and Burma followed implemented the umbrella into their royal insignia and every day lives as a symbol of sovereignty. It was thought as disrespectful to open your umbrella in front of something of a higher rank without their permission to do so, especially the King. Furthermore, parasol servants often escorted royal guests to the palace when they came to visit. Anywhere from up to forty parasol servants accompanied the king when he went out, and it was only right to extend his comforts to his guests.
Royalty proved to be a crucial component in the survival of the umbrella because regardless of the current time, whether it is economic hardship, war, or anything else, you could always see royalty on display on those nice sunny days with their parasols. This was especially important in the Middle Ages as the popularity of the umbrella was extremely low, but the parasol was at the height of its popularity. Although the parasol was more popular than the umbrella at that time, it was not for utility, but for design and production of umbrellas made them very cumbersome and hard to use, especially when wet. However, as you will see in the next section, this will change and ultimately, along with the parasol umbrella duality, lead to the explosion and popularity of the umbrella.
One of the, if not the, major source of the umbrella’s power comes from its design and production. As I mentioned earlier, the umbrella is the simplest and best thing that does what it does; however, this does not single handedly ensure the survival of a thing. Many problems arise along the way of a thing’s existence that deal with availability, production materials and production methods that can render it ineffective and obsolete, or can propel it to new heights. Luckily, the production of the umbrella improved significantly in terms of design and materials used as time went on, which lead to stronger, lighter and easier to use umbrellas. As a result, more people could use them and saw them as having realistic value. Production advancements most definitely improved umbrellas market share and rose their popularity to levels that allowed for people to accept their common use in society and helped build the phenomena that is “The Umbrella.”
The umbrella of ancient times was made of bamboo and cloth, leaves, papyrus, or any other material suitable for providing some sort of shelter. The first people to waterproof the cloth were the Ancient Chinese; they waxed it and also derived the telescoping shaft, which is why they are credited with the creation of the first collapsible umbrella. Umbrellas progressed throughout time in a similar fashion; they remained bulky and cumbersome, and incurred many difficulties once wet. In addition, the progression of umbrella production was on a path of ineffectiveness: whalebone was used for the ribs and was not strong enough, how the ribs connected to the shaft was very confusing and often times caused problems, and the umbrella was still a clumsy object that was not very good at protecting its owner. The parasol did not encounter these problems since it was made specifically for those bright sunny days, it was light and decorated elegantly in comparison to the ugly, un-stylistic umbrella. However, there was hope in Europe still, and it would turn out that these new improvements would revolutionize the umbrella industry, namely steel ribs and top-notch and runner system. An excerpt from William Sangster’s, “Umbrellas and Their History” embodies these concerns.
“"The early Umbrellas were made of oiled silk, or glazed cotton cloth, and were very cumbrous and inconvenient. To judge from a picture of Hanway, and from the other old pictures mentioned above, they were small, with a very long handle. They were not used for walking, and consequently instead of the ferrule had a ring at the top, by which they were hung up. The stretchers were of cane, and the ribs of cane or whalebone. Instead of the present top-notch and runner, both ribs and stretchers were simply strung on a ring of wire, and the inequality of the friction and the weakness of such an arrangement cause the Umbrella to be always getting out of order. The ribs and stretchers were jointed together very roughly, by a pin passing through the rib, on which the forked end of the stretcher hinged. The first improvement in this respect was by Caney (patent No. 5761, A.D. 1829), who invented a top-notch and runner in which each rib or stretcher has a separate hinge. The top-notch was made of a notched wheel or disc, into each slot of which an axis fixed on the top of the stretchers worked. The runner was made on a similar principle. At the point of the rib where the stretcher joined it, Caney fixed a middle bit, consisting of a small fork, in which the end of the stretcher was hinged. This construction was much stronger, and the forked ends of the stretchers were thus prevented from wearing out the cover, as before. With modifications, more or less important, this construction is the same as that now in general use."
Sangster goes on to state that the two areas that needed much improvement was the strength and weight of the umbrella. Steel ribs, invented by Sam Fox in 1852, contributed to the increasing the strength and durability of the umbrella, as well as reducing its weight. However, the major improvement was in 1829 when Caney invented a new system for the operating of the umbrella. This allowed the umbrella to function effortlessly in the hands of a gentlemen or a lady, and offered superior durability and strength to earlier models in severe weather.
Production continued to improve as international rivalry fueled the competition to produce and export products to other nations for profit. From 1780 to 1840 there were twenty-six patents; in 1850’s alone, there were one hundred and twenty-six, and now over three thousand active patents pertaining to umbrellas. Parasols were always popular in the neighboring nations around England, in Italy, France, but it took much later for England to get involved, and when they did they had a substantial effect on the market. While other nations were known for their luxury (Italy, France, Japan, China, Portugal), England was known for producing low cost, quality products, which were cost effective because of their incredible advancements in manufacturing. However, they would later lose out to Japan, who would become the chief exporter of umbrellas worldwide, there is no debate as to the sudden rise and technological advancements that took place in Europe in the late 1700’s and middle to late 1800’s. One can attribute such a rise to Steam powered machinery, new raw materials and tempered metals, and the creation of precision tools. As a result of these improvements, the cultural gap between the parasol and umbrella seemed to vanish as many problems associated with the umbrella were no longer existent. Umbrellas have now become available, mainstream items that provide comfort and shelter for anyone with any budget, not just the rich. It is no wonder in this time of technological improvement that the umbrella explodes in popularity and becomes a necessity, rather than a hassle.
Parasol vs. Umbrella & Changing Culture
The duality of the parasol and umbrella dates back to when the umbrella was first conceived, is it for shelter against the elements? Or from the hot, scorching sun? The parasol and umbrella are essential the same structure, they have the same design and are in a sense identical to each other in ways except one is catered to block out the sun and the other harsher weather. The parasol dates back to the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs and other kings and royalty as was their custom when they walked to have a servant give them shade on hot days. In addition, parasols were intricately designed for showing off power and prestige, as well as remaining elegant and luxurious. However, its counterpart, the umbrella, remained a bulky and very brutish instrument to use in the early years. Throughout time, the parasol has carried the concept of the umbrella and kept it alive by its associations with the church, royalty and high society. Most times, people would not even bother to venture out in the rain, let alone want to struggle with an umbrella. The distinction between the two separate lives of the parasol and umbrella is important because the parasol has dominating the umbrella throughout most of history up until the middle to late 1800’s and the present.
What constituted this change in culture is my primary question. It seemed as if the parasol had won the battle because of its symbolism and relationship to the church, royalty and high society. The parasol was viewed as a luxury item, one in which distinguished between rank and was often used as a device in courtship since the time of the Ancient Greeks. However, all the while the umbrella kept refining itself little by little and kept offering shelter and comfort to those who needed to go out in the rain, sleet, snow or any other severe weather. How did the umbrella become what it is today if it was always dominated by the parasol?
It is important to note that the scope of that question is directly at Europe, mostly England for that matter for catching up late. The umbrella flourished in Asia, Africa, and other parts of Europe as well as the East, but England was slow to get around. This seems surprising given the climate in England, but it was not until the 1750’s that a man dare walk the streets with an umbrella and not care what others thoughts. Lieutenant Colonel Wolfe, writing from Paris in 1752, realizes that many people in Paris have umbrellas and yet it does not nearly rain as much as in England, and wonders why. Around that time, Jonas Hanway makes his return from Asia and begins carrying an umbrella with him around the streets of England for the next fifty years. Jonas Hanway was a wealthy philanthropist who had traveled the world and brought back with him the custom of carrying an umbrella with him wherever he went; he thought it went particularly well with his out and that a furled or open umbrella made him look distinguished. At that time, and before, the view towards umbrellas can be described as so: The Female Tatler for 12 December 1709 writes: “The young gentleman belonging to the custom house, that for fear of the rain borrowed the umbrella at Will’s coffee house, in Cornhill, of the mistress, is hereby advertised that to be dry from the head to foot on the like occasion, he shall be welcome to the maid’s patterns.” (Crawford, 106). In addition to having been thought to be only a women’s item, in 1656 John Tradescant published a book called The Collection of Rarities, in it it listed the umbrella under “utensils.” Although it is important to understand that from the 1500’s to 1750’s, the parasol was a dominant fixture in the lives of women, royalty and the church for reasons of symbolism, fashion, comfort, luxury and accessory. Paris had annual fashion shows in which the latest models of parasols would be displayed. Furthermore, the umbrella was still at a point in its production where it could not compare to the ease of the parasol and could not perform its function of sheltering its owners from the weather very well. However, all this started to change in the late 1700’s, which not coincidently was the time when people’s perceptions of the umbrella changed.
Due to technological improvements, the umbrella was able to bridge the gap between the parasol and itself by offering people a different, better kind of comfort. People did not worry about the sun so much as they did about the heavy rain and severe weather. The parasol was a novelty that caught on in the higher circles, but was of no use to the average person in Europe, and last anyone checked, there are always a significant number more average people than well off people, monetarily speaking. In addition, after Jonas Hanway had shown England that the umbrella can be an every day accessory it began to become one. He obviously was not the only factor, but people began to realize the usefulness of the umbrella and because it had improved so much and its costs were decreased significantly, this allowed it to challenge its counterpart the parasol. And although the parasol is nice, would you really rather have a parasol than an umbrella in England. However, the parasol remained a luxury item and remained strong up until the wars began in the early 1900’s. Umbrella popularity and sales also fell as manufacturers began to develop and create weapons. Along with that came tough times and high taxes. Soon after that, the idea of a luxury item such as a parasol was not as interesting to a majority of people anymore. It had seemed their values had shifted more towards usefulness rather than luxury, as they should have in a situation such as that. French fashion shows dropped the parasol from their collections all together and it had seemed as if it had succumbed; however, it was still used by royalty and clergy then and even today.
The umbrella has remained practically unchanged throughout thousands of years and has survived through literature, art, fashion, religion, royalty, popular culture, and so much more because it has always proven useful and necessary to human beings. The umbrella fulfills the necessity we have for comfort, shelter, protection and convenience. As society evolved over time from agricultural and rural societies into cities and civilizations, there were cultural shifts that shook people’s values. If I was going to take anything away from this project it would be that “things” speak to us, we just have to find a way to hear them. Each thing has a story and a past, and woven in its past is human interaction and our history. We have always relied on things since the beginning of our time on Earth, and will continue to rely on them so long as they remain useful and fulfill our needs, not our wants (parasol). The umbrella is a clear example of how a simple thing, such as an umbrella, can tell a powerful story about how people have changed throughout time and the progression our race has made and is making currently toward the values we assume are most important at the time. A thing is not just an inanimate object, quite the opposite, it tells a history, our history, and it is important that we acknowledge the abilities things give because without them we would not be here.
Posted at Dec 20/2008 08:38AM:
chris witmore: Hi Dean. I have enjoyed reading your project. I know you have put a great deal of research into this and it would be great if you could provide references for your piece.