I would imagine nearly everyone will have a sun parasol in the garden or on a sunny balcony in this country, as part of their essential garden furniture, another for the beach maybe, and even an umbrella in the boot of the car for golfers or for the mad dash in the rain from the car to a restaurant to save clothes or hair from a soaking when the rains come.
The history of the umbrella goes as far back as ancient Egypt, and carvings from that time have survived to show a lowly slave carrying a parasol to shield a king or some other dignitary from the blazing sun and were made from palm fronds, feathers or stretched papyrus. In Japan, Imperial Family aristocrats were using them to protect themselves from both evil spirits and the sun, and were sometimes known as a ‘wagasa’, and were traditionally made from renewable materials such as oiled paper, string and bamboo. But the real difference is the number of ribs – the wagasa has between 30 and 70 ribs, whereas the western umbrella normally has 8.
In Ancient Greece, female servants carried parasols for aristocratic ladies, not just for shade, but as a fashion accessory! There are even accounts of oil being applied to paper parasols to make them waterproof. Such was the connection of parasols to women, that Greek men’s masculinity was called to question if they were seen carrying one, and the Romans continued this trend, believing men with parasols were effeminate.
England had a similar antiquated view that carrying an umbrella was a bit ‘girly’ until Jonas Hanway, a philanthropist, began carrying one around in 1750. This gentleman has a Portugal connection, so read on, and he had a very interesting life, worth looking into if you have the time. In 1728, at the ripe old age of 16, he began training in accounting and other business skills while living with his uncle in Oxford Street, London, equipping himself for a career as a merchant. For 12 years, he then lived and worked in Lisbon at the ‘English Factory’, an important business centre due to the port of Lisbon being used extensively by British shipping. He no doubt gained valuable business experience and was certainly influenced by Lisbon’s long tradition of philanthropy dating back to mediaeval times of being hospitable to pilgrims.
Hanway himself had a habit of carrying an umbrella everywhere (despite enduring ridicule from men who thought anyone with money could just take a stagecoach if it rained), which eventually received public acceptance by the late 18th century, and such was his reputation that an umbrella carried by a man was called a ‘Hanway’.
A gentleman named Samuel Fox, an industrialist and businessman, invented the steel-ribbed umbrella in 1852, which reduced the weight of the umbrella while strengthening the frame. Gentlemen of ‘ great means’ also began commissioning custom umbrellas with handles with secret compartments that could be used to hide anything from flasks to daggers, and umbrellas became a crucial item in a gentleman’s ensemble by the turn of the century. Nylon fabrics eventually became the choice of material for umbrella canopies in the 1960s, making for more rain-resistant and fast-drying umbrellas that opened the way to colours and designs.
The next innovation for umbrellas was the development of the telescopic pocket umbrella by a German mining assessor called Hans Haupt in 1928. He also used a walking stick, and it was difficult for him to carry an umbrella as well, so he came up with the idea of an umbrella he could collapse and fit in his pocket. He called it ‘knirps’ – German for ‘small child’, and Knirps became the brand synonymous with tiny collapsible umbrellas. The ancient Chinese also recorded the use of collapsible umbrellas, with texts from as far back as 2,400 years referencing umbrellas that could slide and close.
So whatever the weather, come rain or shine, this invention keeps you covered!