March is National Umbrella Month. If I were in charge, I would have selected April, but since no one asked my opinion, here is a brief history of the umbrella for your enjoyment.
Umbrellas are often called parasols, but there is a difference. Umbrellas are typically made with some sort of waterproof fabric or plastic. The main purpose of an umbrella is to protect its user from rain. A parasol can be made from any fabric. It is typically not made of plastic material and it does not have to be waterproof because its chief function is to shield its user from the sun. A combination umbrella/parasol is called an en-tout-cas which is French for “in any case.”
Umbrellas and parasols can be hand-held or stationary. They can also be purely decorative as in the case of a drink umbrella. Umbrellas can be fully collapsible making them small enough to fit in a handbag; or non-collapsible – the support pole cannot retract and only the canopy can be collapsed. Most umbrellas are manually operated, but spring-loaded automatic umbrellas spring open at the press of a button. Golf umbrellas are the largest hand-portable umbrellas.
It’s interesting to note that patio umbrellas and other large outdoor umbrellas are really parasols because their primary use is to block the sun for several people.
The collapsible/folding umbrella originated in China. It’s believed that umbrellas were introduced to Japan via Korea. Later they were introduced to Persia and the Western world via the Silk Road. Chinese and Japanese traditional parasols remain similar to the original ancient Chinese design.
In Persia, other parts of the Middle East and Ancient Egypt, umbrellas and parasols were originally reserved for use by royalty.
In Ancient Greece, a parasol was a “must have” fashion accessory for any woman of means. However, men who carried parasols were considered effeminate. Cultural changes between 505 and 470 BC made it acceptable for men to use parasols. The parasol eventually became a symbol of luxury for its user.
Artifacts such as vases and drawings show the transition from men carrying swords, then spears, then staffs, then parasols, to eventually nothing.
In Ancient Rome, the parasol was also used as a fashion statement by women of the upper class. Men who were considered effeminate were said to have used the parasol for defense. Ancient Romans apparently did not use umbrellas to protect them from the rain although they used a series of awnings at theaters to shield the audience from the rain. Parasols were heavily ornate and expensive at the time which could help explain why Romans did not go to the additional expense of making the waterproof.
According to a Sanskrit legend in Ancient India, Renuka the wife of Jamadagni a mighty bow hunter spent an entire day retrieving one of his arrows. When Jamadagni complained, Renuka claimed the heat of the sun slowed her down. After an angry Jamadagni shot an arrow at the sun, the sun begged for mercy and offered Renuka an umbrella as a peace offering. The word “Umbrella” became incorporated into royal titles and umbrellas were often displayed in royal households.
Umbrellas in Europe were not in widespread use until after the Middle Ages. The first use was as a parasol to protect from the sun. Later, the umbrella became a fashion statement for the well-dressed gentleman who never went out without his umbrella, despite only needing it a few days a month. Eventually, the umbrella became a well-known fashion accessory of men who walked everywhere. It became associated with men who could not afford their own carriages and its popularity declined.
In France, umbrella rental became a popular business. All rental umbrellas were made of an oiled green cloth and numbered, so they could be easily recovered should the renter walk away with the umbrella. Making the umbrella more available to the populace created a greater demand for umbrellas and in France several businesses began producing umbrellas for sale. The idea spread through Europe and the New World and now umbrellas are used by children and adults of all backgrounds.