An umbrella or parasol is a portable, hand-held device that is used for protection against rain and sunlight.
The term “umbrella” is traditionally used when protecting oneself from rain, with parasol used when protecting oneself from sunlight, though the terms continue to be used interchangeably.
The modern umbrella consists of a circular fabric or plastic screen stretched over hinged ribs that radiate from a central pole. The hinged ribs permit the screen to be opened and closed so that the umbrella can be carried with ease when not in use.
Umbrellas can be divided into two categories:
• fully collapsible umbrellas – in which the metal pole supporting the canopy retracts, making the umbrella small enough to fit in a handbag
• non-collapsible umbrellas – in which the support pole cannot retract and only the canopy can be collapsed
Another distinction can be made between manually operated umbrellas and spring-loaded automatic umbrellas, which spring open at the press of a button.
Parasols are occasionally called sunshades. An umbrella may also be called a brolly (UK slang), parapluie (nineteenth century, French origin), rainshade, gamp (British, informal, dated), or bumbershoot (rare, facetious American slang). When used for snow, it’s called a paraneige.
Umbrellas in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and India were used to protect important persons from the sun.
The earliest known parasols in Ancient Egyptian art date back to the Fifth Dynasty, around 2450 BC. The parasol is found in various shapes. Typically it is depicted as a flabellum, a fan of palm-leaves or coloured feathers fixed on a long handle, resembling those now carried behind the Pope in processions.
The oldest extant example of —apparent collapsible— parasols appears in the archaeological record around 2310 BC, showing Sargon of Akkad. In the sculptures at Nineveh, the parasol appears frequently.
In Persia, the parasol is repeatedly found in the carved work of Persepolis, and Sir John Malcolm has an article on the subject in his 1815 “History of Persia.” In some sculptures, the figure of a king appears attended by a servant, who carries over his head an umbrella, with stretchers and runner complete.
The Sanskrit epic Mahabharata relates the following legend: Jamadagni was a skilled bow shooter, and his devoted wife Renuka would always recover each of his arrows immediately. One time however, it took her a whole day to fetch the arrow, and she later blamed the heat of the sun for the delay. The angry Jamadagni shot an arrow at the sun. The sun begged for mercy and offered Renuka an umbrella.
The waterproof umbrellas was discovered in 11th century BC China, where first leather umbrellas started being sold at a very high price and used only by nobility and royalty.
A Terracotta Army carriage with an umbrella securely fixed to the side, from Qin Shihuang’s tomb, date c. 210 BC.
The Chinese character for umbrella is 傘 (sǎn) and is a pictograph resembling the modern umbrella in design.
In Classical Greece, the parasol was an indispensable adjunct to a lady of fashion in the late 5th century BC. Aristophanes mentions it among the common articles of female use – they could apparently open and close. Cultural changes among the Aristoi of Greece eventually led to a brief period – between 505 and 470BC – where men used parasols.
From Greece it is probable that the use of the parasol passed to Rome, where it seems to have been usually used by women, while it was the custom even for effeminate men to defend themselves from the heat by means of the Umbraculum, formed of skin or leather, and capable of being lowered at will.
The lack of references to umbrellas in the Middle Ages suggests they were not in common use during the period.
One of the earliest depictions is in a painting by Girolamo dai Libri from 1530 titled Madonna dell Ombrello (Madonna of the Umbrella) in which the Virgin Mary is sheltered by a cherub carrying a large, red umbrella.
In France, the umbrella (parapluie) began to appear in the 1660s, when the fabric of parasols carried for protection against the sun was coated with wax.
In 1769, the Maison Antoine, a store at the Magasin d’Italie on rue Saint-Denis, was the first to offer umbrellas for rent to those caught in downpours, and it became a common practice.
By 1808 there were seven shops making and selling umbrellas in Paris – one shop, Sagnier on rue des Vielles-Haudriettes, received the first patent given for an invention in France for a new model of umbrella.
Captain James Cook, in one of his voyages in the late 18th century, reported seeing some of the natives of the South Pacific Islands with umbrellas made of palm leaves.
The use of the umbrella or parasol (though not unknown) was uncommon in England during the earlier half of the 18th century.
Victorian era umbrellas had frames of wood or baleen, but these devices were expensive and hard to fold when wet.
Samuel Fox invented the steel-ribbed umbrella in 1852 – however, the Encyclopédie Méthodique mentions metal ribs at the end of the eighteenth century, and they were also on sale in London during the 1780s.
Modern designs usually employ a telescoping steel trunk – new materials such as cotton, plastic film and nylon often replace the original silk.
The pocket (foldable) umbrella was invented in Uraiújfalu (Hungary) by the Balogh brothers, whose patent request was admitted in 1923 by the Royal Notary Public of Szombathely. Later on their patent was also approved in Austria, Germany, Belgium, France, Poland, Great Britain and the United States.
Umbrellas have also been fashioned into hats as early as 1880 and at least as recently as 1987.
The largest collection of umbrella covers is 730 covers and belongs to Nancy Hoffman (USA), in Peaks Island, Maine, USA, as of 7 July 2012. To showcase the collection, her house became the site of the Umbrella Cover Museum in 1996. The collection includes covers from 50 different countries and was established as a celebration of the mundane.
An oversized crocodile skin umbrella is available through special order from Italian company Billionaire Couture. The umbrella retails at $50,000 and was designed by Angelo Galasso (Italy).
The largest umbrella / parasol is 24.5 m (80 ft 4.56 in) in diameter and was created by Khalifa Empowerment Program – Aqdar (UAE) in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on 24 March 2018. The height of the umbrella /parasol measures 15.22 m (49 ft 11.2 in) and was created to celebrate Emirates Happiness Events.