The Umbrella Unfurled: Its Remarkable Life and Times

The Umbrella Unfurled: Its Remarkable Life and Times

by Nigel Rodgers

View All Available Formats & Editions

A delightful illustrated history of the umbrella—protector against rain and sun, weapon, and fashion accessory 

Culturally ubiquitous and multi-functional, the umbrella comes in many colors, shapes, and sizes, and its significance in different forms and throughout time is explored here. Its use in the 


A delightful illustrated history of the umbrella—protector against rain and sun, weapon, and fashion accessory 

Culturally ubiquitous and multi-functional, the umbrella comes in many colors, shapes, and sizes, and its significance in different forms and throughout time is explored here. Its use in the ancient cultures of Egypt is discussed, where it was often made of palm leaves and colored feathers, denoted rank, and even had a religious significance. The place of umbrellas in Roman times is also explained, where it was commonly used by women of fashion—and supposedly by effeminate men to defend themselves. This entertaining history also covers the Edwardian times, the Duke of Wellington, London stockbrokers, and the KGB.

Product Details

Bene Factum Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Umbrella Unfurled

Its Remarkable Life And Times

By Nigel Rodgers

Bene Factum Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Nigel Rodgers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-903071-93-9


The Dawn of the Umbrella

In the beginning was the parasol. Lighter than the umbrella, the parasol precedes its bulkier brother by millennia, for the sun's rays are stopped even by the flimsiest of shelters. To distinguish between the two in early times is pointless anyway. Today, the same objects function in India as both umbrella and sunshade, depending on weather.

The parasol was first seen in ancient Egypt, the Middle East, India and China. Carried solemnly in victory parades or religious rites, it exalted the majesty and divinity of gods, god-kings and high priests. Normally it was carried by slaves or servants, for these early sunshades were large, heavy, highly decorated artefacts.

In Egypt parasols initially sheltered only the pharaoh's head. There was a religious element behind such exclusivity. The Egyptians believed that the sky-goddess Nut shielded humanity by arching her star-spangled body over the night sky, only her toes and fingertips touching the earth. When they raised up their parasols, ancient Egyptians were partly trying to emulate their maternal goddess's protection. A grand parasol above the pharaoh stressed his divinity and power. To 'fall under the pharaoh's shadow' meant falling under his power.

The Egyptian sun itself, however, was good enough reason for seeking shade. The privilege and comfort of being shaded gradually filtered down to the rest of the court. Wall paintings of around 1200BC from tombs in Thebes (Luxor) show princesses or court ladies driving in elegant little two-horse chariots with fringed sunshades. Such early parasols may have been made of leaves or linen, with bamboo or similar ribs. Fragile objects, they were not designed to repel rain. But it hardly ever rains in Upper Egypt.

The royal parasol fashion spread. In alabaster reliefs dating to c.650BC from an Assyrian palace at Nineveh, now in Iraq, King Ashurbanipal is shown taking part in a military procession. A slave or a courtier just behind him is holding a sunshade to shield the king in his chariot. This parasol appears to have been an exceptionally hefty object. Its long thick pole required both hands to support it, while a heavy linen flap hanging behind it and tassels around its base gave almost all-round shelter. In short, no dainty sunshade but a power-parasol.

As such it suited the ruler of the world's first superpower whose war chariots had carved out an empire stretching from Egypt to Iran, crushing in their path peoples such as the Israelites. However Ashurbanipal, also famed as the first monarch to have founded a library, was the last of his dynasty to rule a great kingdom. It collapsed soon afterwards, Nineveh falling to the combined attacks of the Babylonians and Persians. What happened to the royal parasol remains unknown.

The Persians, the heirs of Ashurbanipal's imperialism, also inherited the custom of using parasols as regal props. According to the Athenian historian Xenophon in his history Cyropedia (Boyhood of Cyrus), written c.380BC, Persian royalty and nobles made use of elaborate parasols against the sun's heat. King Xerxes I is depicted in about 480BC on a ceremonial gate at Persepolis, the ceremonial capital, a solemn procession of one under a parasol. In another carving, he is shown receiving tributaries and courtiers. Above him are two young slaves. One holds a parasol over the royal head while another wields what looks like a fly whisk. (Zoroastrian Persians had a particular abhorrence of flies, regarding them as emissaries of Satan.)

In India the umbrella has been linked with power, prestige and religion for more than 3000 years. Typical of such power-parasols was the nava-danda. This had seven tiers of scarlet and gold cloth covered with 32 strings of pearls, a frame of pure gold and a handle made of a ruby with a diamond knob. It was deemed suitable only for monarchs on grand occasions such as coronations. Little wonder that the Mogul rulers of India in the 16th and 17th centuries restricted the use of such sunshields to their own dynasty. Nobles had to be content with a white parasol with gold fringes.

The ancient Persian name for provincial governor sattrapas (satrap) may be the origin of Ch'hatra-pati, Lord of the Umbrella, a title assumed by later rulers in India such as the Mahratta princes of Punah and Sattara. A Maharajah of Nagpur had a ceremonial umbrella with sixteen ribs covered in silk and adorned with silver and gold decorations. This mighty sunshade was shown at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The ruler of Ova proudly called himself 'King of the White Elephant and Lord of the Twenty-Four Parasols'. The rajahs of Cochin even incorporated the outline of an umbrella in their postage stamps, so pervasive was Indian brollymania by the 19th century. Among the many titles of the kings of Burma in 1859 was 'Lord of the Great Parasol'.

In 1638 the German traveller Johann Albrecht von Mandelsloh noted the widespread Indian use of ceremonial parasols. 'No one who thinks himself a person of any importance in Goa appears on foot in the street but has himself carried by slaves in a palanquin with a great quitesol or sunshade to protect him from the sun's heat and also for pomp and show', he wrote. As the British began settling in southern India in the late 17th century, they adopted the ceremonial use of the parasol/umbrella, then little known in Britain. In 1687 in Madras (Chennai) aldermen of the Madras Corporation were permitted to carry kettysols (a variant of the Portuguese quitesol) to demonstrate their authority.

Pomp and ceremony long predominated in India under British rule. When Edward VII as Prince of Wales toured India in 1877 – the first British royal to do so – he rode an elephant beneath a vast golden parasol. Both were thought essential to uphold the royal status. The prince returned home with 20 magnificent sunshades given to him by Indian rulers, some embroidered, others covered with feathers. The most luxurious, from the Begum of Oude, was made of blue silk stitched with gold thread and covered in pearls. The prince never found a use for these superb examples and they are now on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

However Queen Mary, the consort of Edward's son George V, when visiting India in 1911 for the grandiose durbar to celebrate the king's accession, was accompanied by a turbaned attendant carrying an elaborate parasol. Interestingly, Queen Mary alone had such a brolly-bearer. Other members of the royal retinue had to carry their parasols themselves. Umbrellas at the time certainly signalled status.

Perhaps the umbrella's noblest roles are in Hindu and Buddhist legend. Varuna, a deity associated with the sky and ocean, carried an umbrella called the Abhoga made from the hood of a cobra. The god Vishnu, in his fifth incarnation, borrowed Varuna's umbrella when he took on a pigmy's shape and descended into hell, escorted by umbrella-carrying Brahmins. In the ancient epic Mahabharata parasols are mentioned: 'The litter on which was placed the lifeless body of the monarch Pandou was adorned with a flywhisk, a fan and a parasol. As music played, hundreds of men offered ... flywhisks and parasols.' Today the umbrella is still widely used in Hindu religious processions, sheltering or honouring the gods' statues.

The umbrella figures prominently in Buddhism too. The god Brahma held a white umbrella over the new-born infant who would become the Enlightened One. At the end of the Buddha's life dark umbrellas sheltered his funeral procession. In early Buddhist carvings, where the Buddha himself is seldom shown, a parasol is sculpted over empty space or a prayer-wheel, indicating that the Buddha, if invisible, is still present. Under the Buddhist emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, the novel shape of the stupa, the archetypal Buddhist structure, first appeared, in part inspired by umbrellas. Many stupas were even decorated with carved umbrellas or had umbrellas perched on top of them. On Buddhist sculptures from Gandhara of c.AD200, two types of parasol are discernible: one with a grand dome, the other shaped like a wheel.

In China the umbrella or San, the 'shade against sun and rain', had emerged by 1000BC independently of developments further west. It is mentioned in the Rites of Tcheou of the 11th century BC, which ordained that ceremonial chariots should be adorned with parasols made of silk or feathers with 28 curved ribs.

Early Chinese brolly technology seems to have been far more advanced than that of the west, for collapsible umbrella stays dating to about 25BC have been found in the tomb of the warlord Wang Kuang. Around the same time, the emperor Wang Mang's ceremonial chariot was protected by a kuikai, a parasol that could be collapsed by a telescopic mechanism called a pi-chi. As protection against the rain was as important as shelter from the sun, the Chinese needed parasols/umbrellas to be robust and practical. Oiled paper and/or silk were used as water-repellent materials from earliest times, as they still are for some parasols and umbrellas.

Functionalism, however, was never central to the development of the umbrella in China any more than it was elsewhere. Instead, elaborate ceremony to demonstrate precise status was the thing. In imperial China the emperor was preceded by 24 parasol-bearers on grand occasions, while a four-tier gold silk sunshade covered in flowers, jewels and feathers sheltered the head of Son of Heaven. An edict of 1012 restricting the use parasols to members of the imperial family was widely ignored. Finally under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the use of umbrellas was tightly regulated. A general or provincial governor was now heralded by two huge red silk umbrellas, for example.

'A Chinese of any rank at all, such as a mandarin or priest, never goes out without a parasol,' wrote Monsieur M. Cazal, a French brolly-maker and historian, in 1844. 'Every Chinese of the upper classes is attended by a servant who carries his parasol extended above him... Even their horses are sheltered by parasols.' (Cazal also noted that all Chinese umbrellas were made with simple bamboo ribs. Either Chinese brolly technology had regressed by his time or, more probably, he was allowed to examine only the simpler type of umbrella.)

A mandarin's rank could be discerned from whether his parasol had one, two or three tiers. The highest ranks of mandarins were given parasols of black lo (a form of Chinese gauze) with red silk linings and three tiers. All these umbrellas were made of dragon-embroidered silk. Minor officials and ordinary people could carry only umbrellas of oiled paper. An illustrious foreigner, such as the new German ambassador to the imperial court in 1897, might be given a single-tier red silk umbrella as a symbol of his (relatively modest) authority.

In Japan the parasol also played its part in outdoor ceremonies from early times. Tombs from the 5th century AD have yielded clay sculptures called haniwa, some of which depict parasols called kinugasa. These were insubstantial objects made of feathers and leaves with bamboo handles and ribs, almost certainly used to indicate the status of the dead. Although the Japanese did not give the umbrella the same solemn importance as the Chinese, umbrellas or sunshades called naga-e were held over the head of noblemen while priests, courtiers and imperial officials were entitled to another type of umbrella called tsumaori-gasa.

The parasol rather than the umbrella features prominently in Japanese art, especially in famous woodblocks from the 18th and 19th centuries. Generally treated as an item of flirtation, the parasol often half-hides or half-reveals naked or half-robed women walking besides rivers or lakes. Utamaro showed in Two Beauties under an Umbrella an amazing multi-coloured example of the parasol, a huge and elaborate artefact despite being obviously made of paper.

Utagawa Hiroshige similarly portrayed women using paper umbrellas in Evening Snow at Asakusa, a marvellous work of c.1845. The umbrella, even of the flimsier sort, can protect against snow as well as rain elsewhere. When it snowed heavily in Rome in 2012, many Romans likewise hoisted umbrellas against the descending flakes.

Geisha girls would use decorated sunshades and fans in Tokyo tea-houses as part of their seductive tea ceremonies. Acrobats used simple parasols as part of their acts, teetering under umbrellas on high wires or at the tops of ladders in ways which hugely impressed the French writer Théophile Gautier when he saw them perform. For the Japanese, the parasol was central to their aesthetic view of the world.


The Umbrella Goes West

The ancient Greeks and Romans also had parasols and umbrellas but used them very differently from the Assyrians, Persians and Egyptians. With no kings to glorify, they saw them not as power-props but as light-hearted accessories. However, the Greeks did make use of parasols in religious rites.

Women, barred from public life in ancient Greece, took an active part in the rites of goddesses such as Athene, patron deity of Athens. When performing these in the open, women often had parasols. While Greek men loved to exercise naked, getting a good overall tan, Greek women tried to remain fashionably pale-skinned – as all women did until the 1920s, when Coco Chanel revolutionised attitudes to sunbathing.

When Aphrodite, the love goddess, is portrayed on vases, she is often shaded by elegant parasols to protect her snow-white skin. Persephone, goddess of vegetation, also appears on vase paintings under a parasol. This might possibly be an umbrella, for Persephone's symbolic re-emergence from Hades occurred each spring, a rainy season in Greece.

Parasols pop up too in the rites of the wine god Dionysos (Bacchus). Whether in rustic revels in the sticks of Arcadia or in giant processions in cities such as Alexandria, parasols were carried by the Bassarids, Dionysos' raving female followers. In Alexandria a huge statue of Dionysos was shaded by a parasol. However Dionysos, an ambivalent god sexually, was the only Greek god to sport a sunshade. Parasols were normally only used by females, mortal or divine. The poet Anacreon once mocked a man for carrying an ivory-handled parasol 'like a woman'.

In ancient Rome, too, only women used parasols. The poet Juvenal, writing c.AD100, used the term umbella, meaning 'little shade', clearly referring to sunshades. In the imperial capital these became luxurious status symbols. According to Pliny, the author killed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, palm leaves were used for early parasol covers and bamboo canes for the frames. Later, covers were made of purple-dyed silks while handles were of ivory studded with gems. Clearly these were luxury items only for sunny days. Yet when Juvenal in another poem recommended taking an umbella in case of bad weather, he presumably meant an umbrella.

Earlier the poet Virgil had talked of leather umbellae, suggesting something rain-resistant. The technology the Roman parasol/umbrella finally achieved still baffles archaeologists and literary clues remain tantalisingly indecisive. Parasols could, however, be fun.

In mosaics of about AD330 in the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, a half-naked woman holding a tiny parasol pirouettes flirtatiously. She is notable for another reason: this is the first recorded sighting of the bikini. (The world would have to wait another 1600 years before the bikini gained wider acceptance.)

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the appeal of the umbrella and parasol declined. They were now used only to symbolise power and dignity. Pope Paul I awarded Pepin, King of the Franks, a bejewelled umbrella in 760 as a reward for protecting the papacy. The ombrellino (Italian) or umbraculum (Latin) became central to papal regalia. On a mosaic in the church of the Santi Quattro Coronati (Four Crowned Saints) in Rome, Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314-335) receives the imperial insignia, including a large brown-and white umbrella, from Constantine, the first Christian emperor. A small parasol like a lampshade hovers near the pope's head.


Excerpted from The Umbrella Unfurled by Nigel Rodgers. Copyright © 2013 Nigel Rodgers. Excerpted by permission of Bene Factum Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Nigel Rodgers is the author of 16 books on subjects ranging from Roman architecture to travel and philosophy and has been translated into 11 languages. Among his books are Life in Ancient Rome, The Roman Army, and Philosophers Behaving Badly.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >