Umbrellas? Many children will have read P.L. Travers’ books about Mary Poppins on which the film of 1964 was based. Mary Poppins suddenly appears floating down from above holding an umbrella. Businessmen in London considered the bowler hat and the furled umbrella an essential part of their dress . In China parasols were mostly used for protection from the sun. Many Westerners rush into the sun regardless. In countries such as Japan and Korea parasols are considered essential in sunny weather. Special gloves and face masks are also used.
Nobody likes getting wet. A prototype of umbrella for rainy days probably existed thousands of years ago. An archeological site in China dated sixth century BC revealed a simple form. The Chinese design gradually arrived in the Western world via the Silk Road. Their umbrellas were waterproofed using wax or lacquer. Handles were made of wood, metal, even ivory. Captain Cook in the late eighteenth century reports seeing Pacific Island natives with umbrellas made of palm leaves. On the other hand, British Samuel Fox invented the steel ribbed umbrella in 1852.
Nineveh and ancient Greece
An umbrella can be seen in the sculptures at Nineveh. A bas relief shows a king in his chariot with a servant holding a parasol over his head. In ancient Greece ladies of fashion considered the parasol indispensable. On the other hand for a man to carry one was a sign of effeminacy.
Umbrellas in Ancient Rome
The umbrella is said to have been introduced to Rome by the Etruscans. It can in fact often be seen on painted Etruscan pottery. It wouldn’t have been needed at places like the Colosseum. A huge awning could be drawn to cover the open roof, much as happens today in sports stadiums.
Umbrellas and parasols lost popularity during the Middle Ages. However they regained favour around the middle of the seventeenth century. In the early 1700s Frenchman Jean Marius invented a folding parasol to protect wigs. He gained favour with the king who granted him the right to produce umbrellas in France for five years. In Daniel Defoe’s book ‘Robinson Crusoe’ of 1719 the latter mentions spending a great deal of time making an improvised umbrella. This he covered with skins to keep off the sun. He said he could indeed use it even in the hottest weather. When he was rescued he took the umbrella with him, also a goatskin cap he had made and a parrot.
Umbrellas in paintings and films
Umbrellas and parasols feature in many famous paintings such as those by Renoir, Monet and John Singer Sargent. They also appear in many well-known films such as ‘Singing in the Rain’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘My Fair Lady’. The French film ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Festival in 1964.
Shapes and sizes
By the way umbrellas come in all shapes and sizes. The biggest ones are probably beach or garden umbrellas, followed by those for golf and fishing.Then there’s the bubble umbrella, a transparent model. The small umbrella hat attached to a headband is only recently regaining popularity. American Robert Patten was prospecting in Mexico in 1880 and had the idea. When finally he moved to Seattle in the 1890s he was known as ‘Umbrella Man’.
Some antique umbrellas and parasols are very valuable. A modern umbrella such as a Swarovski dotted with crystals can also cost several hundred dollars. (by Susy)