Sun & Spray: A History of Umbrellas

Londoners are used to getting caught in the rain. It’s a fact of our daily existence. 

London doesn’t have good days, it has good mornings and good afternoons; the weather is temperamental and likes to piss all over us every few hours or so. It’s because of such a climate that most of us—either in our bags, rucksacks, or pockets—carry around an umbrella. This was not, however, always the case. 

Umbrellas have never throughout history been as ubiquitous as they are now. Throughout their history, umbrellas have indicated both wealth and poverty, they have offered means of protection as well as violence, and have also stood as symbols of hope against danger. While supposedly just protecting us from the rain, the brolly has played a pivotal role in our culture for sometime now.

The first written reference to an umbrella comes from Ancient China in 21 AD when a dynasty official named Wang Mang designed a collapsible umbrella for a ceremonial carriage. In hieroglyphs from Ancient Egypt, umbrellas can be seen depicted as an ornament and royal accessory. At first, then, the umbrella was more of a status symbol than a practical tool for the every man on the street.

Around 1.5 million umbrellas are sold in the UK alone each year.

In its early inception, though, the umbrella was more than just an item indicating wealth, but a marker of many complex social lines. For instance, in Ancient Greece, a well-to-do patrician lady would never hold her own umbrella, but would have one of her slaves hold it up it for her. To hold the umbrella in Athenian society was to mark yourself as lower class. In 18th century England, the shade of an umbrella functioned as a transient social space of intimacy. Within the rigid social norms, a gentleman could be private with a lady he fancied under the shade of a brolly. As an example, an umbrella plays a pivotal role near the end of Jane Austen’s Persuasion when the handsome Captain Wentworth makes a gesture to the heroine Anne Eliot that he wants to walk her home in the rain. Take Austen’s word for it: an offer of sharing one’s umbrella can mean a lot more than simply that.

In 18th century Paris, the umbrella was a marker of middle class vulgarity. To carry an umbrella wherever one went signalled that one didn’t have a carriage to shelter them from the downpour. For similar reasons, along with the umbrella being associated as a feminine accessory, the umbrella was slow to popularise in England. Their growth in popularity is due to the determination of one single man: Jonas Hanway. The founder of Magdalen Hospital took his brolly everywhere he went despite reproach and mockery from pretty much everyone; from hansom cab drivers to members of upper class society. By the end of his life, the umbrella was beginning to see wide-spread usage. Fast forward two centuries and the umbrella industry is now massive. Around 1.5 million umbrellas are sold in the UK alone each year.

Take Austen’s word for it: an offer of sharing one’s umbrella can mean a lot more than simply that.

But the umbrella has a dark side. In movies like Kingsman or Batman the parasol is used as a weapon. This is not just the crackpot imaginings of comic book nerds. In fact, in 1978 a Bulgarian revolutionary writer—Georgi Markov—was assassinated in London by a dose of ricin injected with the tip of a normal-looking umbrella. While ostensibly a helpful tool, the umbrella has also been used as a dangerous device.

That said, most recently, the umbrella has become a symbol of hope. The 2014 Hong Kong protests were dubbed ‘The Umbrella Revolution’; the parasol became a way of defending oneself against the pepper spray of the government’s army.

So be it pepper spray, rain, or even sunshine—the umbrella shelters you from it. Until the wind blows it away!


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