In some parts of the world, an umbrella is practically a necessity. Whether it’s for rain or sun or singin’ in the rain, here are eight facts about the history of those wire and fabric contraptions that keep your head dry during a rainstorm.
1. YOU CAN THANK THE SUN FOR THE WORD UMBRELLA.
While people today associate umbrellas with rain, the roots of the word have to do with shade from the sun—umbrella stems from the Latin umbra for “shade, shadow.” But soon after the word appeared in English (and in England’s less-than-sunny weather), umbrella morphed from being the term for something that shaded you from the sun to something that kept off rain.
2. UMBRELLAS WERE INVENTED IN CHINA.
Historical excavations suggest that the Chinese were the first to create a collapsible fabric dome around the year 21 CE (at the latest), when rulers were interested in having some sort of shade covering for their carriages. The umbrella was exported abroad thanks to the Silk Road, first to Japan and Korea, then across Europe and Asia. The usage of parasols and umbrellas flourished during the Roman Empire, died down during the Middle Ages, and began to grow in popularity again during the Renaissance.
3. UMBRELLAS WERE ONCE USED SOLELY BY WOMEN.
Umbrellas were the ancient equivalent of donning a pair of high heels—only women would use them, and they were a blatant symbol of femininity. In fact, in many ancient cultures, men brandishing umbrellas was a sign of effeminacy. And umbrellas were often associated with high fashion and wealth. It wasn’t until the mid 18th-century, when the founder of English Magdalen Hospital was publicly and frequently seen using an umbrella, that the connection between femininity and umbrellas disappeared.
4. THE 19TH CENTURY WAS PROBABLY THE MOST FRUITFUL PERIOD IN UMBRELLA INNOVATION.
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If you look at old paintings of umbrellas, you’ll notice that they all look the same as they do today. In fact, a 1270 CE Song Dynasty painting features what is perhaps the earliest art depiction of a collapsible umbrella and it looks basically the same as what we flip out in a downpour.
But there have been some improvements, and an intense spike in umbrella innovation occurred in the 1800s. One thing that came out of this spurt of creativity was the button that allows the umbrella to automatically inflate or collapse, an innovation that proved remarkably sturdy in withstanding the test of time. But it wasn’t until 1928 when Hans Haupt—who suffered from a war injury that inspired a cane-umbrella combination—created an umbrella that folded neatly into itself.
5. THE U.S. PATENT OFFICE IS DELUGED WITH DESIGNS FOR BETTER UMBRELLAS.
As author Susan Orlean wrote in a New Yorker piece on modern renderings of the humble umbrella, they are “so ordinary that everyone thinks about them, and, because they’re relatively simple, you don’t need an advanced degree to imagine a way to redesign them, but it’s difficult to come up with an umbrella idea that hasn’t already been done.”
Orlean goes on to describe how the United States Patent Office has seen more than 3000 plans for redesigning the umbrella, from adding a pet leash to attempts at creating a flying umbrella. But none have really stuck. Today, a Google search of the US Patent Office yields 120,000 entries with the word “umbrella,” including an automated sun tracking umbrella, dog umbrella, umbrella with interchangeable tops, mister-equipped umbrella system, and many more.
6. ONE CITY IN CHINA PRODUCES A LARGE CHUNK OF THE WORLD’S UMBRELLAS.
Songxia has been described as the umbrella capitol of the world, and for good reason: According to local estimates, about half a billion umbrellas, or 30% of China’s production, are made here, supplied by more than 1000 factories. One single worker makes about 300 umbrellas a day. The city’s factories, which lie two hours south of Shanghai, make “rain umbrellas, golf umbrellas, beach umbrellas, folding umbrellas, promotional umbrellas, mini umbrellas, kids umbrellas, fashion umbrellas, parasol umbrellas, patio umbrellas, clear umbrellas, wedding umbrellas, market umbrellas, etc.” That’s a lot of umbrellas!
7. THE UMBRELLA COVER MUSEUM IN MAINE BOASTS THE LARGEST COLLECTION OF UMBRELLA COVERS IN THE WORLD.
You know those things your umbrella comes inside of? Those nylon sleeves that are supposed to protect it from ruining anything else in your bag but that you inevitably lose? Well, there’s an entire museum devoted to umbrella covers. Nancy Hoffman is the curator and director of the Umbrella Cover Museum on Peaks Island in Maine, a 20 minute ferry ride away from Portland. Hoffman started her collection when she found a few stray umbrella sheaths in her house and stole another one from a department store, giving birth to her collection, which now numbers over 700.
8. A MYSTERIOUS “UMBRELLA MAN” WAS PRESENT AT JFK’S ASSASSINATION.
November 22, 1963, was a clear, balmy day, perfect for a drive with the top down in a convertible. But shortly after noon in Dallas, as President John F. Kennedy’s car drove past Dealey Plaza, a man opened his umbrella and waved it from east to west. Moments later, a shower of gunshots fell from the sky and killed the 35th president of the United States. Afterward, the man—who would later become known as the “Umbrella Man” and was the subject of a recent New York Times “op-doc”—sat down before leaving and heading toward the Texas School Book Depository.
Why did he have an umbrella? Was he signaling the assassin(s)? Did he have a gun attached to the umbrella that delivered the fatal wounds? These questions were debated for years among the press and conspiracy theorists alike, but never quite answered until Louie Steven Witt appeared in front of the House Select Committee on Assassinations a decade later to testify about his umbrella, claiming he’d not only been unaware of the brouhaha but also that he was simply heckling the president for his father’s role in working with former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in appeasing Adolf Hitler before World War II (Chamberlain’s fashion accessory of choice was a black umbrella). Of course, some conspiracy theorists don’t accept that explanation, and the debate over the Umbrella Man keeps on humming.
And it’s not the only umbrella that may or may not be involved in an assassination: Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was stabbed with an umbrella whose tip lodged the poison ricin into the man’s thigh, killing him in a matter of days.