N J Ravi Chander
The umbrella, an early invention, evolved over the ages. Though initially designed as a sunshade or parasol, it soon doubled up as a shield during rainy weather. Umbrellas have been around for centuries, as evident in ancient Chinese, Greek and Egyptian art and artifacts.
Before their invention, giant leaves or animal skins served as a protective cover. However, the Chinese were the first to waterproof umbrellas for rain protection, waxing and lacquering their paper parasols.
The umbrella served as a woman’s accessory (to avoid tanned skin) until the mid-18th century, when the Persian traveller and writer Jonas Hanway bucked the trend. Despite the initial mockery, other men went out in the streets of London ‘under a portable roof’. As a result, English gentlemen often referred to their umbrella as “Hanway”. It soon became an accessory of the most respected English gentlemen within Hanway’s lifetime.
By 1800, an English umbrella had become very sophisticated, with its framework made of whalebones and wood. Some included a rapier or featured baroque ivory decorations. It also served as a cane. The metal, U-shaped handles arrived in the 1850s, and manufacturers reduced their weight and cost.
Many children’s tales depict giant mushrooms that shelter the residents of the animal world. Indeed, early umbrellas resembled mushrooms in shape. They come in many sizes and colours, and young designers are constantly trying to reinvent them. Kings and courtiers thought umbrellas made them look grander and showed off their ‘grand tops’ the way people do today with private yachts and Porsches. Though some of these old ceremonial umbrellas were weighty, an enslaved person or a courtier was always available to carry them over his master’s head.
The most common umbrella, featuring foldable steel ribs under the canopy, was first sold by Englishman Samuel Fox in 1852. However, compact, collapsible models have been widely available since the 1930s and the giant golf-style umbrella since the 1970s.
These luxury accessories put class and respectability on display, much like hats. Ladies from affluent families used the colourful “portable roof” to make a style statement. A Lady’s umbrella was shorter and had a limited canopy. Did you know about a funny incident of a thief stealing an umbrella out of the House office of Maryland Representative Charles Coady in 1914?
Umbrellas always rewind memories! I recall the familiar sight of my primary school teacher marching around with a big wooden U-shaped handled umbrella on the campus. Besides using it as a protective shield, she also trained it on errant students. It was amusing to see some students get into mock combats, wielding the contraption like a sword.
The umbrella was the elders’ favourite companion in the old days, and many seldom left home without one. I recall my maternal grandfather, M Dharmalingam, going on his evening stroll with a big-sized black umbrella clasped in his hand. He would unfurl it only when it poured. It also doubled up as a walking stick, helped keep stray dogs at bay and came in handy to shoo away street urchins who barged into the house.
Umbrella repairers were an integral part of our lives in those days, but today they are a rare species. They would call out for service, and people would beckon to them. Factories and workplaces also had umbrella stands where employees could keep their shades. But these, too, have become relics of a bygone era!
(The author is a former banker who has taken to writing as a past time. He regularly contributes to various national, regional and other publications including ‘Kashmir Vision’)