Everyone knows that rain falls from the skies, but the origin of the umbrella isn’t quite as easy to explain. The best way to start is to say that the history of it is tied up with the history of the old-fashioned parasol.
Some historians say umbrellas were used by the Romans. Others claim the Egyptians used them not for keeping dry, but for keeping cool beneath shade, and they passed on parasols to the Chinese about 3,000 years ago. That may be so—history is mum on details—but it appears that the collapsible aspect of umbrellas came from China at some time around the year 21 A.D., when Wang Mang commissioned a ceremonial carriage on which a versatile shading device was meant to be attached for the riders’ comfort.
Shortly after the parasol came to Greece and Rome, it was wholeheartedly embraced by wealthy women. So much so, that any man caught using a parasol was the subject of ridicule. There’s indication that this lasted about as long as the Roman Empire, then parasols and umbrellas all but disappeared from recorded history.
Though you might spot the occasional 14th- or 15th-century painting with a shading device quietly in the background, it wasn’t until the mid-1600s that it once again became acceptable to carry an umbrella or parasol, for females at least. The French, Italian and English seem to have been frontrunners in the re-embracing of parasols, which were mostly made of silk; waterproofing became more common in the later 1600s. Not until 1750, when Englishman Jonas Hanway was spotted and derided for carrying an umbrella everywhere he went, did it become a good idea for men to stay dry, too.
The use of umbrellas quickly got out of hand: soldiers sometimes carried them into battle until the Duke of Wellington forbade umbrellas at war. By the Duke’s day (late 1700s to mid-1800s), umbrellas were already as important to a gentleman as a good top hat, coat and gloves. Some manufacturers began to embellish them with flasks, knives and other hidden accoutrements.
Today’s umbrellas are staider, if not more useful, thanks to the invention of a better ribbing system. They’re made of silk, nylon, waterproof paper, polyester and other materials. Most don’t have a lot of extras on them although the U.S. Patent Office is awash in potential inventions to improve on the basic design. And, coming full circle, most of the world’s umbrellas are made in Songxia…China.