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So, Where Did The Umbrella Come From?

Umbrellas. They are one of those run-of-the-mill everyday items we often take for granted, like corkscrews, paperclips, pens and the humble door key that’s designed to get you into your home without the need to invent a monthly password.

These neat inventions make our lives flow with ease and convenience. But let’s remember that they each took some genius inspiration and a fair amount of trial and error to get right. It’s time we took a look at the origins of the umbrella.

You may know from your physics lessons that the Latin word ‘umbra’ means shade. Hence, umbrella. And while they might not have been called that from the beginning, there’s nothing new about umbrellas. The first ones arrived in thousands of years ago in sunnier parts of the world, as parasols. Then in China, paper versions were coated with a waterproof layer of wax for rainy day use.

In the West in the 1500s, umbrellas were made from canvas with handles shaped from carved wood or bone by skilled craftsmen. At that time, umbrellas were seen as a girl-thing; a practical accessory used to protect the weaker sex from the elements. But then in England in the 18th century, a travelling man by the name of Jonas Hanway used one in public and started a fashion for men to carry their ‘Hanways’ with them too. In 1830 ‘James Smith and Sons’ began formally trading in umbrellas on Oxford Street.

From that point, it was about refining the style and construction to meet the needs of everyday people. Steel was used in England for the ribbing of robust umbrellas. And because practicality required them to be easily portable as well as waterproof, in the early 20th century umbrellas also became collapsible and foldable. These were more like the contemporary umbrellas we recognise in 2018.

Have you ever heard of Hans Haupt? Hans studied sculpture in Vienna and came up with a new compact umbrella design in 1929 that was made in Austria. But around the world, numerous umbrella manufacturers have been hard at work and thousands of patents have been registered for umbrella designs. In one city in China alone there are over 1000 factories dedicated to umbrella manufacturing. It’s big business. Since they were first created, umbrellas have been the choice for the rich and poor, celebrities, royalty and everyday people, young and old. They have been incorporated into hats, developed into essential accessories for golf and commuters, and can be seen enhancing photographs of special occasions, times of mourning, and vibrant celebration all over the world.

They’re even making them with batteries now, to sync with your smartphone. One day, perhaps they'll be fitted with gaming handsets...