17 Dec /13


The word “umbrella” is derived from the Latin umbra meaning “shade”, and for centuries it was used principally as protection from the sun rather than the rain. Umbrellas were used in ancient Egypt, Assyria, Persia, China, India, Greece and Rome. They were seen as status symbols, and in the same way that sophisticated citizens would show their peacock feathers and cool themselves with peacock fans, people of a certain class would guard against sunburn with elegant umbrellas.

As a result, almost all the early references in English indicate umbrellas being used in exotic places. The very first of these came in 1611. This was courtesy of travel writer Thomas Coryat, in his amusingly titled description of travels through Italy, France and Germany Crudities: Hastily gobbled up in five months. Ironically, 1611 was one of the wettest years on record in England, with constant rainfall and flooding washing away crops and homes. It is doubtful that English readers would have appreciated Coryat’s references to sunnier lands.

It seems it was Thomas Herbert (China and the armchair travellers) who was the first English-speaking person to see an umbrella used as a shield from the rain. He documented it in his book Travels in Persia. But the idea proved unpopular with England’s Puritans, who believed the rain was heaven-sent and saw the umbrella as a frivolous item. It would not be until the late Victorian era that the umbrella became commonly used in England, and it took longer still for it to become a consumer product with a global market. China, one of the first places where English-speakers saw umbrellas in use, is now the world production leader with the town of Shangyu alone having more than 1,000 factories. In the United States some 33 million umbrellas are sold each year.

The umbrella is also a central part of one of the most popular and memorable scenes in all of cinema. In 1952 Gene Kelly created an iconic dance routine to the title song in “Singin In The Rain”. The scene showcases the umbrella as an elegant prop but not as an effective protection from the rain. Kelly was soaked to the skin, and after filming he was confined to bed with a 103 degree fever.

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