“Don’t Forget Your Brolly!”


ON AN average day in Britain, many people carry an umbrella. You just can’t be sure it won’t rain. “Don’t forget your brolly!” we call to one another as we leave home​—and then we may absentmindedly leave it on the bus or train or in a shop. * Yes, we tend to take our portable shelter for granted, since we can always buy another one. But the umbrella wasn’t always viewed so lightly.

A Distinguished History

The first umbrellas evidently had nothing to do with rain. They were emblems of rank and honor, reserved for important people. Sculptures and paintings thousands of years old from Assyria, Egypt, Persia, and India show servants holding sunshades over rulers to protect them from the sun. In Assyria, only the king was allowed to have an umbrella.

Down through history the umbrella continued to represent power, especially in Asia. A ruler’s status increased according to the number of umbrellas he owned, as shown by a Burmese king who was called Lord of the Twenty-Four Umbrellas. Sometimes the number of tiers  was important. The umbrella of the emperor of China had four tiers, and the king of Siam’s had seven or nine. Even today the umbrella remains a symbol of authority in some Oriental and African countries.

Religious Umbrellas

Early in its history, the umbrella became associated with religion. The ancient Egyptians thought that the goddess Nut sheltered the whole earth with her body, just like an umbrella. So people walked under their own portable “roofs” to receive her protection. In India and China, people believed that an open umbrella represented the vault of heaven. Early Buddhists used it as a symbol for the Buddha, and domes of their monuments are often surmounted by umbrellas. Umbrellas feature in Hinduism too.

Umbrellas spread to Greece by 500 B.C.E., where they were carried over images of gods and goddesses at religious festivals. Athenian women had servants carry a sunshade over them, but few men would use such an object. From Greece the custom spread to Rome.

The Roman Catholic Church included the umbrella in its ceremonial regalia. The pope began to appear under a red and yellow striped silk model, while cardinals and bishops had violet or green versions. Basilicas to this day have a chair for the pope with an ombrellone, or umbrella, over it in the papal colors. The cardinal who acts as head of the church between the death of one pope and the election of the next also has an ombrellone as his personal emblem during that time.

From Sunshade to Rain Shield

Today we distinguish between the umbrella, which shields us from the rain, and the parasol, which shields us from the sun, but neither word originally had any connection with rain. The English word “umbrella” comes from the Latin umbra, meaning “shade” or “shadow,” and the expression “parasol” comes from words meaning “to shield” and “sun.” It was the Chinese or possibly the women of ancient Rome who began to oil and wax their paper shades as a protection against the rain. However, the idea of a sunshade or a rain shield disappeared from Europe until the 16th century when the Italians, and later the French, rediscovered their use.

By the 18th century, women in Britain were beginning to carry umbrellas, though men still refused to bear what they viewed as effeminate fripperies. The exceptions were coffeehouse owners, who realized the advantage of having an umbrella at the ready to shield customers from the elements as they stepped outside to their carriages. Clergymen too found them very useful in churchyards when they conducted burial services in the pouring rain.

It was traveler and philanthropist Jonas Hanway who changed the history of the umbrella in England. He is said to be the first man who had the courage to carry one publicly in London. Having observed men using them in his journeys overseas, he was determined to brave the angry jeering of the hackney coachmen who would deliberately splash him with muddy water from the gutter as  they drove by. Hanway and his umbrella were regularly seen together for 30 years, and by the time he died in 1786, men as well as women were happily carrying umbrellas.

Using a rain umbrella in those days was a real challenge. Such umbrellas were large, heavy, and clumsy. Their oiled silk or canvas covers and their ribs and shafts of cane or whalebone made them difficult to open when wet, and they leaked. Nevertheless, their popularity grew, especially as it was cheaper to buy an umbrella than to hire a carriage when it rained. Umbrella makers and shops multiplied, and inventors turned their attention to improving the design. In the middle of the 19th century, Samuel Fox patented the Paragon model, which had a light but strong steel frame. Lighter fabrics such as silk, cotton, and wax-glazed linen replaced the old bulky covers. The modern umbrella had arrived.

Fashion Accessory

The parasol now became very popular as an elegant fashion accessory for the stylish lady in England. Reflecting changing fashions, her dainty parasol grew ever larger and was covered with all manner of brightly colored silks and satins. It often matched her outfit and was embellished with lacy trimmings, fringes, ribbons, bows, and even feathers. Well into the 20th century, no respectable lady wishing to preserve her delicate complexion would be seen without her parasol.

In the 1920’s, suntanned skin became the vogue, and the parasol virtually disappeared. Now came the era of the city gentleman with his unofficial uniform of bowler hat and black, rolled umbrella, which doubled as a debonair walking stick.

After the second world war, new technology brought improved umbrella designs to the market, such as the telescopic folding model, as well as waterproof nylon, polyester, and plastic covers. A few shops survive that make fine hand-finished, expensive umbrellas. But nowadays, factories mass-produce umbrellas cheaply in all colors and sizes, ranging from the huge golf and patio styles down to the collapsible six-inch [15 cm] model that fits neatly into a purse.

Although once viewed as a luxury and a status symbol, the umbrella is now readily affordable, and it regularly comes near the top of lists of lost property items. It is a very useful accessory for meeting weather challenges anywhere in the world, and its original use as a sunshade is back in fashion in some lands, as warnings increase about the risks of sun exposure. So perhaps when you leave home today, you too will hear the reminder: “Don’t forget your brolly!”


^ par. 3 “Brolly” is the British colloquial expression for an umbrella. The American equivalent, though seldom used, is “bumbershoot.”

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Buying and Taking Care of Your Umbrella

Make your choice between convenience and strength. The cheaper folding style that slips into a large pocket likely has fewer ribs but is less robust in strong winds. On the other hand, the conventional stick umbrella may cost more, but it usually withstands the weather and lasts longer. Indeed, a good umbrella can last many years. Whichever type you choose, protect it from mildew and rust spots by leaving it open to dry completely before folding it up again. Storing it in its outer sleeve will keep it clean and dust-free.

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A servant shades an Assyrian king

A woman of ancient Greece holding an umbrella

[Credit Line]

Drawings: The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck

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A parasol, about 1900

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Culver Pictures