The Umbrella, An Essential Rainy Day Accessory
When the heavens open and the rain starts to pour, the first thing you’ll be reaching for is your umbrella. With a good waterproof coat and a trusty brolly, even the heaviest rainstorm is no match. While we’re all used to pocket sized umbrellas, giant golf parasols or your standard cheap one which turns inside out at the slightest breeze, umbrellas have a surprisingly varied history.
Umbrellas were first invented over four thousand years ago – but as parasol to protect you from the sun, rather than the rain. There’s evidence of them in Egypt, Assyria, Greece and China – and it was the Chinese who first tried to waterproof their brollies. They used a process of waxing and lacquering to repel water from the fabric, letting them stay dry even when it was raining cats and dogs.
They weren’t known as ‘umbrellas’, however. This was a western word originating in the 16th century. Unsurprisingly, umbrellas first took off in the rainy northern parts of Europe. After all, if you’re sunbathing in the Med then rain protection is likely the last thing on your mind. They were originally only seen as suitable for ladies – sorry guys, you’d have still been getting soaked. It was only due to the efforts of Persian travel writer Jonas Hanway that umbrella use amongst men became popular in the 18th century. English gentlemen even referred to their brollies as ‘Hanways’.
The first all umbrella shop opened in London in 1830 on New Oxford Street – it’s still there and going strong. Early umbrellas were made of wood or whalebone and covered with oiled canvas. Many were works of art, using top grade hard wood with intricate carvings. Steel ribbed designs and collapsible brollies came along in the next century or two – leading to now, where on a drizzly day there will be a rainbow of umbrellas on the streets. So, next time you unfurl your umbrella, just remember it wasn’t always that easy to stay dry on a stormy day!