Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Apple #37: Umbrellas

It's been raining quite a bit lately. Every time I carry an umbrella, I think, "What a great invention." It's simple, and it's genius.

A couple under an umbrella in Laos
(Photo from Cringel's blog)

  • The first umbrellas were parasols, used to provide shade from the sun. Ancient art from Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and China all show people carrying parasols. Having one held up over you was a sign of prestige.
  • The Chinese were the first to waterproof their parasols for protection against rain. They coated the fabric with wax and lacquer.
  • The use of umbrellas became popular in Europe in the 16th Century. Except at first, only women used them.
  • Early European umbrellas used wood or whalebone for the handle and ribs, and alpaca or oiled canvas for the covering. Some umbrellas were made of intricately carved ebony.
  • Then in the late 1700's, a British guy named Jonas Hanway, who was a travel writer about Persia and well-known philanthropist, started carrying umbrellas when it rained. Eventually, other British gentlemen started carrying them, too. Some people in England still call their umbrellas the "Hanway."
  • In 1852, a guy named Samuel Fox patented the use of steel for the ribs. He said he did this to try to use up the steel he had left over from making stays for corsets.
  • Also in the 1850's, Europeans realized they could use umbrellas in the sun, too, and thus the parasol became popular again. It was considered an essential accessory for women until the invention of the automobile.
"Who Invented the Umbrella?" Mary Bellis, on the Inventors pages at
"Umbrella" entry in the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, accessed through InfoPlease
"Jonas Hanway" entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


  1. Dear Apple Lady:

    Could you please explain the use of the term 'bumbershoot' as it relates to the umbrella?

    Thank you.

  2. Yes, I can address the term "bumbershoot." My dad has often used this word as a goofy verion of "umbrella," as in "Have you got your bumbershoot?" Until now, I had always thought this was unique to him. But as I just discovered, the word was used in a song in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it appeared in one of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, and it can be dated back to 1896 (see I think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is probably where he got it from, since we had a record of songs from that movie.

    Thank you for asking.


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