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ALMA HAHN: Opening up the history of the umbrella

April 18, 2011

Our subject for today’s column is Brolliology.

What’s that, you say? You don’t know the meaning of that word? Brolliology is the study of brollies, or, as you probably call them, umbrellas.
You probably recall being warned when you were a child never to open an umbrella in the house as it would bring bad luck, but did you also know that if you do and drop it, there will be a murder in the house?
Nobody takes those superstitions seriously, but there are some interesting facts about umbrellas. For one thing, they go by some strange names: brolly, gamp, parasol, parapluie, bumbershoot, to mention a few.
Most of us assume, if we give it any thought at all, that umbrellas probably were invented by an Englishman because the weather there is notoriously damp. Or possibly in China because Chinese women are always depicted with an umbrella.
Actually umbrellas have been around so long that nobody knows who invented them or when. Historians do agree that the use of umbrellas predated man’s learning to write.
Historians believe that they were probably invented by the Egyptians because Egyptians believed the sky was the underbelly of the sun god. Early Egyptian art depicts the ruling Pharaohs walking in the shade of an umbrella as a sign of their royalty, while in India a religious group called the Jains referred to their heaven by a name which translates “The Slightly Tilted Umbrella.”
According to the Internet, the Greeks used the umbrella “as a symbol of productivity and sexual aggression,” whatever that means. Umbrellas featured in parades and festivals were dedicated to their god Bacchus. Bacchus was known for his wild parties and scandalous revelries.
Our ancestors also realized that umbrellas offered protection from the sun, too. A stone tablet belonging to the Assyrians of 1350 B.C. shows servants holding an umbrella over their king for shade.
Europe got the umbrellas from the Byzantines when Pope Paul I gave a Frankish king (called King Pepin the Short) a jeweled-handled umbrella.
In the 15th century, Portuguese sailors gave umbrellas as gifts to the native authorities. The sailors also opened one above their captain indicating his authority.
It is known that Normans brought umbrellas to England when they arrived in 1066. Their umbrellas had 12 ribs. They probably introduced the word umbrella into the language, though it first appeared in print in 1609 in a work by poet John Donne.
A man named John Hanway in the 1800s popularized the umbrella. He brought one to London and walked about town with it. He was ridiculed by cabbies and passersby. They called them “Hanways.”
Many Londoners feared the umbrella for religious reasons; they believed that God created rain to get people wet, and it was sacrilegious not to do so when it rained. Nonetheless, the British eventually embraced umbrellas and went on to waterproof them.
Pubs always kept a supply of umbrellas near the door for patrons to pick up as they left when it was raining. A clever inventor created a fold-up umbrella in the 1780s, while a Russian prince is said to have commissioned a transparent one so he could watch out for mad dogs. Mostly though, the design of the device hasn’t changed much since the 1750s.
Women, of course, sought to adapt the design to the fashion scene, preferring smaller ones made of lacy and frilly fabrics. They also secreted perfume, note paper and pens — even daggers — in the handles. According to one article, some umbrellas had protective devices which stuck out on the side to prevent damaging their bustles.
Which brings us to today’s umbrellas. According to the internet, they are the most often lost and stolen items in our society. Many of today’s umbrellas are made by a company called Totes. I had a really special umbrella that was a gift from my daughters. I lost it. I was just sick. I was in Branson and went in to a store that sold that brand and asked if they had any of that design.
The clerk said no, but that if I called the company and asked, they would replace it with one just like it for a nominal fee. I did and they sent the replacement in a couple of weeks for a small shipping charge.
It was Robert Louis Stevenson who is given credit for saying: “There is no act in meteorology better established, than that the carriage of the umbrella produces desiccation of the air; while if it be left at home, aqueous vapor is largely produced, and is soon deposited in the form of rain.”
My sentiments exactly.

Alma Joyce Hahn taught in the Benton schools for more than 30 years. Her column appears each Monday.
beajhahn@sbcglobal.net

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