An umbrella to keep the rain away.

During the late 18th century, London was full of strange characters who attracted attention to themselves for one reason or another, but perhaps none so much as Jonas Hanway. A former merchant who spent several years working in Persia and Russia, Hanway was known for his eccentricities as well as his near mythic travel stories. He was wholeheartedly dedicated to various philanthropic activities, including governing an asylum for women and the poor, and writing tracts about problems within the British prison system.

Hanway was most certainly in the public eye, but it was not his social work or the circles in which he ran that fascinated the average Londoner. He is remembered over 200 years later for what he carried over his head, that common and most benign accessory, the umbrella.

Hanway’s umbrella was, of course, a take on the parasol, an object that had done its own share of traveling. Since 2400 B.C.E., parasols had been carried over the heads of the nobility throughout the Middle and Far East. In this part of the world, the man of respectable station, wanting to distinguish himself from the masses, kept his skin fair by shielding himself from the sun. The parasol had entered the Middle Ages, held high over the heads of Catholic popes and bishops, serving as a sort of flag or standard. As the Church’s influence waned, the ombrello or “little shadow” had become a fashionable article among Italian women before making its way north.

By the turn of the 18th century, waterproof materials were added, making it useful for protection from the rain.  In 1709, the Frenchman Jean Marius, a master purse maker with an eye for trends, designed a folding version which was lightweight and chic. Soon every sophisticated Parisian was seen carrying a parapluie. These pricey accessories complemented their attire and kept their coiffed heads dry — no proper lady would be caught in public without one.

Charles Le Brun on a horse with servants protecting him from the sun, circa 1670. (Image courtesy Musee du Louvre)

Charles Le Brun and his umbrella-toting entourage, circa 1670. (Image courtesy Musee du Louvre)

And apparently no English gentleman would be caught in public with one. For nearly 30 years, Jonas Hanway stubbornly weathered the ridicule of the London public, promoting the umbrella as an incredibly useful tool that would democratize the city streets (and put a serious dent in the coach industry). His persistence paid off: Savvy London shops began to carry their own umbrellas, much to the disappointment of the city taxi coaches. By the early 19th century this handy tool had evolved somewhat and was now made with leather or oiled canvas. And the umbrella could be used to protect more than one’s wig from the rain: the Duke of Wellington — the victor of Waterloo — was said to have one weighing ten pounds with a concealed a dagger in its handle. Heavy, yes, but what better tool to fend off potential attackers?

As most of the weight was attributed to its whalebone ribbing, manufacturers sought out lighter materials and finishes. Steel was a godsend, making it easier to fashion thinner support ribs. U-shaped steel rods came in the 1850s. Ribs and stretchers became increasingly lighter and stronger. (Steel remains the metal of choice for umbrella ribs and frames, but manufacturers continue to experiment with fiberglass and carbon fiber shafts to reduce weight.) Heavy oiled leather and canvas have long been replaced. In a well-made umbrella, the canopy is now made of 6–12 hand-sewn panels of nylon with a rating of 190T (threads per inch) that are coated with acrylic underneath and a scotch guard application on top.

Though new innovations in construction have created a lighter umbrella, the majority of modern versions are of poor quality (as can be seen by the number of twisted wrecks left laying in gutters after a heavy storm). The better models are worth the extra cost, as they will often last a lifetime and do what they were intended to do — protect our heads from the elements.

Oil painting by Craig Wylie (2008)

Craig Wylie (2008) Oil on canvas.

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  1. Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:14 PM | Permalink

    the umbrella was from


  2. David Vega
    Posted May 4, 2011 at 6:44 PM | Permalink

    @tink1234: Actually, historians aren't quite sure from where the umbrella comes, but they do agree on one thing–different versions of the parasol were used in Asia and Africa. For this reason, we cite "the Far East" as one possible point of origin. Last time I checked, China was in the Far East!

  3. Sasha Koltunova
    Posted February 22, 2012 at 11:13 AM | Permalink

    this was SOOOOOOOOOOO helpful (i had to use it for a school project)

  4. innom
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 6:44 PM | Permalink

    the modern foldable design of the umbrella was invented in the Han Dynasty in China (2nd century AD). the non foldable ones are called parasols

  5. Posted February 3, 2014 at 10:58 PM | Permalink

    It seems it was Thomas Herbert who was the first English-speaking person to see an umbrella used as a shield from the rain. He documented it in his book Travels in Persia. But the idea proved unpopular with England’s Puritans, who believed the rain was heaven-sent and saw the umbrella as a frivolous item. It would not be until the late Victorian era that the umbrella became commonly used in England, and it took longer still for it to become a consumer product with a global market. Source:

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