The umbrella is also referred to as a parasol, gamp, bumbershoot, or brolly. The design is crafted to protect the user from the harsh midday rays of the sun and all forms of precipitation. They are hand-held devices that can be carried around for protection from the elements, or as accessories, to compliment apparel.
The term is Latin in origin and means 'shadow' or 'shade'. The history of umbrellas dates back to different times, in different regions of the world. It is an integral part of the ancient sculptures at Nineveh, seen aloft the chariots, and the carved work of Persepolis, in Persia.
Umbrellas Through the Ages
In ancient Egypt, the parasol was used in various forms. Depictions flaunt fans of feathers or palm-leaves over chariots, more or less in the form we know of today. In ancient Egypt, like in most other countries in and around Central and East Asia, it symbolized monarchy.
In ancient Greece, the device was more a part of fashion than an indispensable adjunct for protection. Depictions dating back to the late 4th century BC display umbrellas that could apparently open and close. The Greeks considered it a mark of effeminacy if a man carried one.
Its religious significance can be seen in depictions highlighting the feast of Athene Sciras and those of Dionysus. Interestingly, a marked paradox reveals that Athenian women carried umbrellas as a mark of subservience! Its odyssey seemed to have meandered towards Rome thereafter.
In ancient Rome, the devices were designed with skin or leather and were also used for defense. A parallel theory suggests that this collapsible canopy made its way to ancient Rome from the Etruscans. Throughout the East, around this time, it was an insignia of royalty and high rank.
Written records on ancient China mention a collapsible umbrella as far back as 21 A.D. On chariots, the 'shades' were fitted with bendable joints that enabled extending and retracting it, as and when required.
Complex bronze hinges with socketed and inter-locking slides and bolts have been unearthed at the Luoyang archaeological site that dates back to 6th century BCE, making it the oldest known to man! The ancient book of ceremonies, 'Zhou Li' or the 'Rites of Zhou', written 2400 years ago, has depictions and descriptions of umbrellas with 28 arcs.
The specifics included descriptions such as the circumference of the upper staff being a rod measuring 3⁄18 of a Chinese foot and a lower tube having a circumference of 6⁄10.
The earliest ideas on this virtual chapeau were probably derived from designs replicating tents and other makeshift protections. The Chinese design finally made its way to Japan and Korea, via the Silk Route.
The Indian epic Mahabharata, dating back to the 4th century, describes this handheld device as a form of protection from the sun. The Eastern voyages of Jean Baptiste Tavernier, in the 17th century, mentions its use on either side of the royal thrones, throughout the princely states.
In the Deccan region of India, the Maratha princes even addressed their king as 'Chatrapati' or 'lord of the umbrella'. All through the Middle Ages, the designs traversed the length and breadth of Europe.
20th Century and the Present
The device was soon sought more for functionality than ornamental value. It was a common sight in the hands of photographers, as a diffusion device. By the mid-twentieth century, carrying an umbrella demanded etiquette, and the use of matching accessories such as gloves and a hat!