For years now I have not carried an umbrella around with me. Instead I have a rain poncho in my bag which hopefully covers me and my laptop and books when I’m out and about. I’m yet to find the ideal rain keeper-off-er. Why I no longer use an umbrella is because there are so many inconsiderate people who do use them – it’s easier to dodge them and protect my eyes and hair not having one.

So, it was rather intriguing that on one of the few downpour days in London, I happened to be going through the Cape Times at the British Library only to discover a history of the umbrella. (p14, Saturday 1 August 1914 for anyone interested).

In short, it appears that umbrellas (including parasols) have been around for centuries – 3000 BC/E. There is/was a sketching of an Assyrian King being cooled by a parasol being held by a woman.

The article continues that the word umbrella derives from ‘uni bra’ and Johnson (presumably Samuel Johnson) described it as ‘a screen used in hot countries to keep off the sun, and in others to bear off the rain’.

The parasol was back in the day, only for the monarch – is that why it plays such a prominent role in Ashanti festivals. We caught the Yam Festival back in 2002 in Ghana and I recall the impressive parasol indicating the chief’s presence.

By 1616, umbrellas were used in England as a luxury, made of feathers to represent water birds (why?). It was only during the reign of Queen Anne that oiled silk was used for umbrellas/parasols. In particular, they were chiefly used by women. They crossed the gender line in the 18th century when a Jonas Hanway, recently returned from Persia, was seen carrying one on London’s streets. In 1782, the first umbrella was seen on the streets of Scotland when Dr John Jameson had one in Glasgow following a visit to Paris.

It is said that the Portuguese navigators brought the umbrella to the north (France) from tropical countries. 1630 is the date given for umbrellas having whale bone handles and copper frames, and were so sturdy they were passed down from generation to generation weighing 3-4 pounds. They were covered with leather and oiled with silk.

In the 1770s, colourful taffeta parasols started to appear and in 1825 darker colours became fashionable, remaining popular to 1914.

How rapidly the life of an umbrella has changed since then. Now they come in all shapes and sizes, some able to cope with strong winds, others too flimsy, and I wonder how many get lost in a day. I’m still after an umbrella that is self-holding, as apart from it being a dangerous weapon, carrying one can get in the way of carrying other things, especially where both hands are needed, and many of us haven’t been trained to carry goods on our heads. By the time I realised this valuable skill, I was too old to build my neck muscles – I needed to start age 5 or 7. On the plus side, having to carry an umbrella might well reduce the number of people oblivious to others on the pavements because they’re so engaged with their electronic device. But we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

I wonder how this article would have ended if it had been written after the 1914-1918 war – especially given the nature of the East Africa campaign where downpours and sun both wreaked havoc on all involved.


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