The Umbrella’s Journey Through the Ages

The first recorded use of umbrellas comes from Egypt over 3000 years ago. Mostly likely inspired by the shade of a tree branch, initially umbrellas were made with palm leaves or long colorful feathers. There was not much need (being Egypt and all) for an instrument to shelter under while frolicking in the rain. So umbrellas were first used as sun protection to maintain the fashionably fair skin of the nobility. 


Most sources say that it was the entrepreneurial Chinese who later had the bright idea to make umbrellas an instrument for rain protection. Apparently they ran with the Egyptian design and made it better, creating the first waterproof umbrella from heavily oiled silk and even leather. Probably due to already established trade routes, however, it was the Egyptian umbrella that made its way into Europe before the Chinese design. Wealthy females in Rome and Greece sported the umbrella as a sign of high status. The umbrella was considered too lady-like for men, and instead they were meant to brave the strong sun with just a hat. The word umbrella itself tells us that it was originally designed for sun protection. In Latin ‘umbra’ means shadow and by putting the ‘elle’ on the end it becomes ‘little shadow’.


At some point the Chinese idea of the waterproof umbrella spread and umbrellas became instruments for sun and rain. But not everybody saw them as innocent and useful implements. There was a time in England when women were discouraged from mimicking European females and their umbrella accessorizing. The puritan regime deemed it to be sinful to use something so frivolous for the purpose of thwarting the god sent rain. But then, even for European women the umbrella fell out of fashion with the fall of the Roman Empire. 



As economies crumbled and wars waged the umbrella was dropped and not to be put up again until the late 16th century. And again the umbrella found its place among high-society French and Italian women. The umbrellas were a little bit different to most of todays more simple designs. Back then they were elaborately adorned with lace and jewels. The number of layers of fabric on one’s umbrella would tell anyone who saw it about your status: and of course the more layers and frills the better. Before the invention of steel ribbed umbrellas in the late 1800s, whalebone or wood were used to hold up the canopy. Around the same time that steel started to be used instead of whalebone, men began to be able to take advantage of this highly useful tool without being ridiculed as effeminate. And with cheaper manufacturing costs the umbrella worked its way to being used by the general public also and is today an indispensible item for everyone.


So from its humble beginnings as a collection of feather or palm leaves, the umbrella has evolved throughout the ages, consistently helping the human race to enjoy all forms of whether from harsh sunlight to delicious deluges!

Written By: Clare Harvey