The first time I actually took refuge beneath an umbrella was as an adolescent. It was during the graveside rites for one of my friends. A family acquaintance held it over himself and me because we weren’t chosen to sit in the tent. I was thankful for the polite gesture on that cold, rainy morning.
Despite knowing about the utility of umbrellas and perhaps because of its new association with the death of a friend, I refused to carry an umbrella for many years. A part of this refusal had to do with the fact that umbrellas are not regularly used in my part of the American Midwest. I finally decided to always carry one when I began to walk, not drive, to work each day. They’re so useful that I even bought one to store in the car.
Some sort of proto-umbrella has probably been a part of human life far back in pre-history. There has been a need to protect oneself beneath a temporary, portable covering for ages. The ravages of intense sunshine or the chill of a downpour likely led to holding a large leaf or small tree branch above the head for protection. Of course, I’m just guessing.
The first historically traceable use of an umbrella or parasol was in Ancient Egypt, some 3500 years ago. The device was an array of leaves attached to a stick. Soon afterwards, the primitive parasol evolved into an accessory put to use by the nobility and priestly classes. Archaeologists have discovered hierogliphs that depict pharaohs and gods with parasols above their heads to protect them from the Sun.
The Chinese apparently were the first to make a parasol that used waterproof materials for a task-specific umbrella. As in Egypt, the first people authorised to use them, were nobility. The most important people were protected by multi-tiered, fancy umbrellas. The tradition quickly spread to the neighboring regions of Burma and Siam. For several years, the Burmese kings brought the custom to ridiculous heights, up to 24-tiers of umbrellas protected his royal head.
The umbrella, more like the ones with which we’re familiar, first appeared in public use in Europe during the 1700s. They became acceptable for use by men in England in the 1790s and slowly were adopted as a general use item as technical improvements enabled umbrellas to be more practical accessories.
During the industrial age and into the modern era, technological improvements and stronger materials have enabled further enhancements, most notably the pocket umbrella that is extremely portable.
I was probably not alone in wishing there was an umbrella that could withstand the strong winds often accompanying rainstorms. I often had to support the ribs of my umbrella with one hand to prevent its collapse and damage while walking into a strong wind. Despite my efforts, wind contributed to the destruction of maybe a half-dozen of my umbrellas. I wondered if I could come up with an umbrella strong enough to withstand a Nebraska thunderstorm. I never actually set aside the time nor made the effort to design one, though.
A couple of years later, I found out that an industrial design student at Delft University of Technology in Delft, Netherlands came up with “my idea”. Gerwin Hoogendoorn, in 2005, invented the storm umbrella that could weather winds of around 70-mph or over 100-kmph. This is one of those instances when I felt like kicking myself over my inaction.
Recently, umbrellas have become a controversial political symbol. The Yellow Umbrella Movement spontaneously arose during last year’s pro-democracy student protests in Hong Kong. The name “umbrella revolution” appeared as a “tweet” on Twitter in reference to umbrellas used by the Hong Kong “Occupy” protesters to defend themselves against tear gas. The loose-knit coalition decided to substitute the word “movement”for “revolution” from the name so as not to cause over-reaction by the Chinese police.
Regardless of whether or not you use an umbrella as a political statement or a fashion statement, I hope you take a few moments and think more about umbrellas during Umbrella Day, today.