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The umbrella’s colorful storied past

Posted on March 14, 2021 | Comments

Umbrellas. Here in SoCal they rarely see the light of day let alone much rain. My hopes were up at the onset of winter when I finally succeeded in finding a great umbrella. Admittedly, my excitement waned with mostly warm temperatures, and I forgot about using the kid-size, see-through dome with a lightweight handle. However, my interest was revived when I checked out the umbrella’s historical ancestry. Colorful not only describes one of its physical characteristics, it’s also a well-suited description of the umbrella’s varied past.

That adorable dome shape I mentioned is actually one of 10 umbrella categories. The classic, automatic, and pocket-size are the three we’re most familiar with on a rainy day. For sunshine protection, ancient Chinese paper umbrellas first appeared over 2,000 years ago. These personal parasols are enjoying a resurgence for protection from rising levels of UV radiation. Stationary umbrellas are typically found in public areas such as the beach or right in our own backyards while high-wind umbrellas are self-explanatory. Designer umbrellas are either called artistic for their rare use and high-end designs or gadget types that have a little humorous comedy in them such as cup-shaped handles.  

Originating more than 4,000 years ago, umbrellas are evident in the ancient art and artifacts of Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and China. From the Latin word, “umbra” which means shade or shadow, umbrellas became popular in the western world beginning in the 16th century. Thought to be suitable for women only, writer Jonas Hanway (1712-1786) encouraged their use among men when he publicly used an umbrella in England for 30 years.

In 1830, James Smith & Sons opened the first all-umbrella shop featuring artistic umbrellas made of wood or whalebone and covered with alpaca or oiled canvas. The artisans made the curved handles from hardwoods like ebony and were well paid for their efforts. A Viennese student studying sculpture developed a prototype for an improved, compact foldable umbrella in 1928 and Bradford E. Phillips improved upon that in 1969. Two years later, Seattle popularized one of many nicknames for umbrella when the city named its annual art festival Bumbershoot because it typically rains over Labor Day Weekend. Today, about 33 million umbrellas worth about $348 million are sold each year.

The umbrella has definitely earned its upstanding role to serve and protect, rain or shine. However, it’s up to us to choose whether or not we’ll let anything “rain on our parade.” Note: Just as it rains after we wash our cars, it rained the day after I wrote this column. Yay!

Originally published, OC Register, March 11, 2021

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