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Weather Almanac for November 2005
Well, once again here on the Pacific Coast, the rainy season is well established, replacing the sunny season that prevails over much of the region during August and September. I am sure residents of the northeastern coastline are already sick of rain after the stalled weather system full of moist tropical air from Tropical Storm Tammy dumped flooding rainfalls across the region. Rains of long duration become more common during October and November as the Polar Front drops further south and brings cold air in contact with the moist, warmer air to spawn frontal storm systems across this continent. Behind that front, the colder air will soon spread snowfall southward, but in November, rain is still the dominant form of precipitation associated with these storms.
In honour of the dark, wet month of November when grey is the colour of the day, I focus this month's essay on that most common of foul weather gear: the umbrella.
Umbrellas have been found around the world in many diverse cultures. However, I suppose we most associate the umbrella with the British whose autumn/winter climate is often described in one word: rainy. So many Brits carry umbrellas that my first image of an English gentleman is of one carrying an umbrella. Former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was known for his umbrella which he often used as a prop during speeches to Parliament. Even James Bond has been seen sporting one or two. John Steed, the co-hero of the popular Avengers spy series, sported one and even dispatched the villain with it.
The origins of the umbrella, however, go back much further than Britannia. According to evidence from ancient India, China and Egypt, they were likely invented over three thousand years ago. Their original purpose, however, was to provide shade from the sun rather than protection from the rain; the word umbrella derives from the Latin umbra meaning "shade or shadow." Ancient sculptures depicting the use of an umbrella or parasol (meaning "against the sun") have been unearthed in Egypt (Thebes), Assyria (Nineveh) and Greece (Persepolis), and evidence exists that they were used in India around the same time.
To avoid some confusion, I will use the word umbrella to denote the rain-protection device and parasol when sun protection is the prime usage.
In Egypt around 1200 BC, fair skin was a sign of nobility, and royalty employed parasols to ensure their skin would not tan. The Egyptians held parasols over high-ranking nobles to denote their heightened authority and to symbolize the vault of heaven opening over a king. In Assyria, the king alone could carry a parasol. The parasol is still regarded as emblem of rank in Africa. In ancient China, court documents show the parasol of the Chinese Emperor had four tiers. Parasols are often referred to in Indian mythology as status symbols in the palaces and courts of the Maharajahs. In the Indian epics The Mahabaratha and The Ramayana the parasol was often introduced as an emblem of rank.
While parasols and umbrellas are a rich cultural icon in many parts of the world, I focus my attention here on the European history of the umbrella which has spilled over to North America.
The Greeks, particularly Greek women, popularised the early use of parasols in Europe between 1500 BC and 100 BC. As sunshades, the devices continued their predominant use in Europe for many centuries. In ancient Rome, for example, if an outdoor theater did not have a protecting roof, women and some men customarily protected themselves against the sun with a parasol.
During the 12th Century, Pope Alexander III granted the Doge of Venice the right to have a parasol carried over him. This action by the Church influenced the spread of parasols across the continent. By the 15th Century, many nobles and church dignitaries used different coloured ombrellinos as a fashion accessory.
By the early 16th Century the parasol became a fashion item as well as a religious object. Its renewed popularity likely began in Portugal after colonists brought them from Asia and Africa. Parasol usage went to France when Catherine de Medici brought one with her to marry the Duke of Orleans. The wealthy French employed parasols for sun protection when they rode to the hunt. In England Mary Queen of Scots owned a parasol of crimson satin trimmed with gold tassels.
Parasol usage was likely more common among the European colonies in the tropical regions. We know that Robinson Crusoe carried one as he walked along the beach from passages in Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel. Crusoe says: "I covered it with skins, the hair outward, so that it cast off the rain like a penthouse, and off the sun so effectually that I could walk out in the hottest of weather with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest." As a consequence of the novel's popularity, a type of very heavy umbrella became known as The Robinson.
French women popularised parasols during the 17th Century, and until the mid-18th Century they were carried only by women of the upper classes across Europe. For centuries thereafter, the parasol became an item of fashion a light, elegant device that changed in style, colour and material with the current tastes. Its uses included as a dress accessory, as shade from the sun, as a means of protection from unwelcome advances, and as a means of flirting. From a device for the high borne, the parasol steadily descended the social scale. Its use increased as a fashionable dress accessory and a means to put on airs.
As the 19th Century drew to a close, parasol covers of chiffon and fancy silk on very long sticks became fashionable, and many women flaunted their latest parasol in an open carriage ride. When walking, ladies often carried closed parasols/umbrellas more often than not.
When tanned skin became the vogue in the 1930s across Europe and America, the parasol faded from view. And despite the recent concerns for overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation, it has not yet reemerged as a personal fashion item. Today, parasols are only seen in situations where the user intends to be protected from the sun such as at the beach, or a picnic, an outdoor concert or sporting event. The parasol of old has now become the beach or patio umbrella of a much larger size.
Enter Rain Umbrellas
By the start of the Nineteenth Century, the parasol and umbrella began to take on separate identities. The parasol became a fashion accessory and statement, and the umbrella provided functional protection against rain and other forms of precipitation.
The first umbrellas for rain protection were most likely introduced in China during the eleventh century BC. The Chinese waterproofed their umbrellas by waxing and lacquering them. They are also credited with designing the first collapsible umbrella. Evidence suggests the ancient Romans used umbrellas as personal rain protection but the practice did not catch on in Europe for centuries.
Sometime during the period 1685–1705, the idea of a waterproof umbrella became established, and rain umbrellas became popular to Europeans, especially in the rainy climates of northern Europe during the Little Ice Age. Those early umbrellas were constructed of wood or whalebone staves covered with alpaca or oiled-canvas. Artisans often fashioned elaborate curved handles out of hardwoods like ebony. Although a Parisian trader named Marius introduced the first folding umbrellas to Europe in 1709, his invention was clumsily designed and never caught.
As the popularity of the rain umbrella grew, the devices began to be distinguished by new descriptive names. In Italy, they became ombrello ("little shade") and ombrellino ("little umbrella"); in France, they were called parapluie ("rain shelter") and parasole ("sun shelter"); in Germany, it was Regenschirm and Sonnenschirm; in English-speaking countries, umbrella for rain, and parasol for sun.
Though we think of umbrellas as synonymous with England, they did not appear in England until the Restoration, beginning in the late 17th Century. Some say the Puritans saw umbrellas as frivolous devices that prevented Heaven-sent rain from properly wetting a person. Legend has it that Catherine of Braganza introduced umbrellas of Portuguese design to England when she married Charles II. However, due to the King's disapproval of Portuguese fashion, the use of umbrellas was slow to catch on.
The ambassador from the King of Batam presented England's Prince Rupert with two great umbrellas in 1682. Unfortunately, Prince Rupert died a few months later, and the Kingdom of Batam fell into decline. These incidents may have begun the superstition associating bad luck with the opening of an umbrella indoors.
Despite these setbacks, umbrellas slowly gained in popularity; the inclement English weather ensured the umbrella's eventual success. Their usage was not equal among the sexes, however. A man carrying an umbrella was regarded as effeminate, unless he held it for over a lady as she lifted her skirts out of the mud. Indeed, a gentleman using an umbrella suggested that he couldn't afford to own or hire a carriage. Nonetheless, a servant's duty, and sign of respect, on a rainy day mandated he hold an umbrella over a gentleman between his carriage and the door of an inn or other establishment.
Until the mid 18th Century, umbrellas were considered a woman's accessory; men who used or borrowed one were ridiculed and often called "Macaronies" (remember Yankee Doodle's feathered cap?) That changed when English traveler, writer and philanthropist Jonas Hanway began carrying an umbrella publicly in England. (Hanway is often mistakenly cited as its inventor and its introduction to London; however, his umbrella was most likely of French manufacture.) Hanway carried it constantly for thirty years to protect his clothing from sun and rain. Often harassed by rogues and coachmen who saw their livelihood threatened, Hanway created a local sensation, but his example so popularized male umbrella use that English gentlemen often still referred to their umbrella as a Hanway. English coffee houses further popularised umbrellas by keeping a supply to shelter customers while walking to their carriages.
Oiled silk was used for the canopy of early English umbrellas, but they were very expensive, heavy, and inconvenient being particularly difficult to open or close when wet. Later, silk and gingham replaced the oiled silk. At this time, umbrellas were produced with wood or whalebone staves and had a ring at the top. When closed the umbrellas were usually carried on a finger passing through the ring. The ring also allowed the umbrella to be hung on the back of a door when not in use. The wooden handle came to a rounded point to rest on the ground.
The first registered umbrella patent in England came in 1786 with John Beale's idea of a circular coned canopy supported by ribs attached to a central shaft. As umbrellas grew in popularity, inventions and patents on umbrellas started to increase in number to over 40 per year from 1860 to the turn of the century. The global market for umbrellas also grew with Great Britain leading the way exporting them to her colonies around the world. The first dedicated British umbrella shop James Smith and Sons opened in 1830 at 53 New Oxford Street in London. (You can still buy an umbrella there today.)
James Smith and Sons New Oxford Street, London
Thomas Brigg established the Brigg Umbrella Co. at 23 St. James Street in London in 1836. Brigg also manufactured walking sticks and hunting crops. The Brigg company later produced a Bond-esque shooting stick. This weapon was an umbrella combined with a working shotgun. The problem with the weapon was the shotgun could only be fired while the umbrella was opened. That aspect ruined the accuracy of the aim, especially, as any umbrella user would attest, on a windy day.
Henry Holland introduced metal ribs in 1843, in part driven by the increased cost of whalebone. The concept that revolutionized the umbrella arose from the mind of Samuel Fox in 1852 when he developed the ‘U' shaped, Paragon steel rib structure still used today. (Fox claimed he invented the steel-ribbed umbrella in order to use up stocks of steel stays intended initially for women's corsets.) And as the 19th Century moved on, umbrellas and parasols became fashion items, and they were elaborately produced with ebony or bone shafts, handles made of precious metals often with jewels embedded and intricate lace or brocade canopies. Gentlemen usually carried their umbrellas tightly furled, resembling the popular walking stick.
In the interregnum between the World Wars, the height of fashion required a gentleman to carry a black umbrella with a silk and/or cotton canopy and crook handle. That stereotype lived on after World War II before life in Europe and American were transformed by technology.
The next major invention was the compact collapsible umbrella. Launched in the US in the 1930s as the "Growy Umbrella" the concept of folding ribs led to the telescopic folding umbrella so popular today. As the need for more practical umbrellas increased, the telescopic folding umbrella was joined by stronger nylon canopies in the 1950s. The transparent umbrella canopy, first produced out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in 1947, had a brief reign in the 1960s before environmental concerns dampened their appeal, though the concept has many safety aspects as pedestrians battle with vehicular traffic on dank, rainy days.
A Popular Prop
Though umbrella usage is not as popular as it was a century ago, they have made themselves a permanent home in our culture. How many of us believe that opening an umbrella indoors will bring bad luck? We "let a smile be our umbrella" and want "umbrella coverage" from our insurance. Of course, we remember Gene Kelly's use of an umbrella in his marvellous "Singing in Rain" dance routine. Umbrellas are associated with Mary Poppins and the Penguin from the Batman series. Parasols decorate mixed drinks. Henry Kissinger is a noted umbrella carrier and so is Clint Eastwood.
After all this, I must admit that I am not an umbrella person. I was given one as a farewell gift by colleagues who figured I would need one when I moved to the coast, but I have used it only a couple times in my 13-plus years living on the "wet coast" and the most recent was for sun protection I wanted to paint on my balcony but the afternoon sun was too bright to see the canvas. Enter the umbrella.
But, into everyone's life a little rain must fall, so for some, that rain brings riches. The umbrella maker's credo states "Outside every silver lining is a great big black cloud."
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