The umbrella as we know it today is primarily a device to keep people dry in rain or snow. Its original purpose was to shade a person from the sun (umbra is Latin for "shade"), a function that is still reflected in the word "parasol," (derived from the French parare, " to shield" and sol, "sun") a smaller-sized umbrella used primarily by women. There is an abundance of references to the usage of parasols and umbrellas in art and literature from ancient Africa, Asia, and Europe. For example, the Egyptian goddess Nut shielded the earth like a giant umbrella—only her toes and fingertips touched the ground—thus protecting humanity from the unsafe elements of the heavens. Although the Egyptians, like the Mesopotamians, used palm fronds and feathers in their umbrellas, they also introduced stretched papyrus as a material for the canopy, thereby creating a device that is recognizably an umbrella by modern standards.
About 2,000 years ago, the sun-umbrella was a common accessory for wealthy Greek and Roman women. It had become so identified as a "woman's object" that men who used it were subjected to ridicule. In the first century A.D., Roman women took to oiling their paper sunshades, intentionally creating umbrellas for use in the rain. There is even a recorded lawsuit dating from the first century over whether women should be allowed to open umbrellas during events held in amphitheaters. Although umbrellas blocked the vision of those behind them, the women won their case.
It was not until 1750 that the Englishman Jonas Hanway set out to popularize the umbrella. Enduring laughter and scorn, Hanway carried an umbrella wherever he went; not only was the umbrella unusual, it was a threat to the coachmen of England, who derived a good portion of their income from gentlemen who took cabs in order to keep dry on rainy days. (In the late 1700s and early 1800s, another name for an umbrella was a "Hanway.") Braving similar ridicule in 1778, John MacDonald, a well-known English gentlemen, carried an umbrella wherever he went.
Due to the efforts of Hanway, MacDonald, and other enterprising individuals, the umbrella became a common accessory. In nineteenth-century England, specially designed handles that concealed flasks for liquors, daggers and knives, small pads and pencils, or other items were in high demand by wealthy gentlemen. The umbrella became so popular that by the mid-twentieth century, if not earlier, etiquette demanded that the uniform of the English gentleman include hat, gloves, and umbrella.
Among the qualities one might look for in an umbrella is the comfort of the handle, the ease with which the umbrella is opened and closed, and the closeness with which the canopy segments are connected to the ribs.
Materials used to manufacture umbrellas have, of course, improved through the years. One of the most important innovations came in the early 1850s, when Samuel Fox conceived the idea of using "U" shaped steel rods for the ribs and stretchers to make a lighter, stronger frame. Previously, English umbrellas had been made from either cane or whalebone; whalebone umbrellas especially
Modern umbrellas are made by a hand-assembly process that, except for a few critical areas, can be done by semi-skilled workers. Choices of materials and quality control occur throughout the manufacturing process. Although a well-made umbrella need not be expensive, almost every purchasing decision impacts directly upon the quality of the final product.
Collapsible rain umbrellas that telescope into a length of about a foot are the most recent innovations in umbrellas. Though mechanically more complicated than stick umbrellas, they share the same basic technology. Among the differences between a stick umbrella and a collapsible umbrella is that the collapsible uses a two piece shaft that telescopes into itself, and an extra set of runners along the top of the umbrella. This section will focus on the manufacture of a stick umbrella.
The fabric used in a good-quality umbrella canopy is usually a nylon taffeta rated at 190T (190 threads per inch), with an acrylic coating on the underside and a scotch-guard type finish on the top. The coating and finish are usually applied by the fabric supplier. Fabric patterns and designs can be chosen by the manufacturer, or the manufacturer might add his own patterns and designs using a rotary or silk screening process, especially for a special order of a limited number of umbrellas. Similarly, other fabrics besides nylon might be used according to need or taste; a patio umbrella attached to an outdoor table does not have to be lightweight and waterproof as much as a customer might want it to be large, durable, and attractive.
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Stacey, Brenda. The Ups and Downs of Umbrellas. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1991.
"How to Choose a Good Umbrella," Consumer Reports. September, 1991, pp. 619-23.
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Jones, Arthur. "Personal Affairs—Sticks of Distinction," Forbes. February 24, 1986, pp. 116-18.
Sedgwick, John. "Let It Pour: Getting a Handle on the Best Umbrella," Gentlemen's Quarterly. March, 1992, p. 51.
Shenker, Israel. "Yoicks! Yoicks! And Brolly Ho! Rah for the Parapluie!" Smithsonian. November, 1989, p. 130.
— Lawrence H. Berlow