Umbrella (Diminutive Of Lat. Umbra A Shade), a folding shade or screen, carried over the head as a protection from rain or sun. When small and used by ladies only as a sunshade, it is called a parasol (Ital. parare, to ward off, and sole, the sun). An umbrella consists of a frame covered with silk, cotton, alpaca, or other material, which can be expanded at pleasure or brought down snugly around a central stick. This stick is furnished at the lower end with a handle, and near the upper end is a metallic ring (the top notch), around which are hinged the upper ends of the ribs to which the cover is attached. Near the middle of each rib is hinged a metallic rod or stretcher, of which the lower ends all meet in a ring (the runner), sliding from the handle up far enough to spread out the ribs to the required extent. The number of ribs is usually 8, although 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, and 16 have been employed, and in the Chinese and Japanese umbrellas they amount to 40 or 50. Rattan is largely used for the ribs of the cheapest umbrellas, but its employment is steadily diminishing.
Whalebone, which at one time was the principal material for the ribs, has been almost entirely superseded by steel, which, combining strength with lightness, has rapidly grown in favor since its introduction about 1840. Modern improvements have generally been in the reduction of the weight and the greater perfection of the mechanism. The most important step in this direction was the invention of the paragon ribs, patented in England in 1852 by Samuel Fox. These are of sheet steel rolled in a semi-elliptical shape, making the least weight of material with the greatest strength. The weight of the other metallic parts of the umbrella has also been much reduced within 30 years. The sticks for common umbrellas are generally made from planks sawed into strips, then turned, and bent or curved; maple is largely used for this purpose. The better class of sticks are root-ended, such as bamboo, partridge or hair wood, pimento, dogwood, myrtle, and orange. Metal tubes have been used quite largely at times. Handles are made of wood, ivory, bone, horn, tortoise shell, and a great variety of other materials.
The covering of the umbrella of 50 years ago was oiled silk or glazed cotton cloth,' which was very cumbrous and inconvenient; now silk, cotton, and alpaca or similar worsted fabrics are the principal materials. Cotton fabrics are sometimes, after dyeing, treated to render them less pervious to water, and to fasten the color. The Chinese and Japanese umbrellas are made entirely of bamboo, paper, and twine. Sliding caps to fit over the ends of the ribs, and hold the umbrella closed, have lately come into general use. Folding umbrellas are among the early inventions of which there are recorded patents, but they have never attained to general favor, being complicated and troublesome. Among other forms are umbrellas enclosed in walking sticks, self-opening, with sticks on which the cover can be thrown to one side, with windows in the covering, and with every variety of form and attachment. The English patent records show nearly 300 patents from 1780 to 1866 for improvements or changes in umbrellas. From 1808 to 1848, 124 patents were granted in France; and in 1873, 25 patents were taken out in the United States, bearing upon the same subject.
Yet very few changes of any value are produced. - The umbrella is found sculptured on the ruins of Nineveh and on the monuments of Egypt. In China and India its use is very ancient. It had also apparently some religious signification. In the fifth incarnation of Vishnu, the god is spoken of as going down to the infernal regions bearing an umbrella in his hand. In the Scirophoria, the feast of Athena Sciras, a white parasol was borne by the priestesses from the Acropolis to the Phalerus; and the umbrella was also used in the feasts of Bacchus. The ancient Greeks and Romans had umbrellas, which from the paintings on vases appear to have been very much like those of the present time; they were used only by women. In many countries the umbrella seems to have been part of the insignia of royalty, and its use permitted only to the king and great nobles. This still continues in some parts of Asia and Africa, and in many cases it is made very large and much ornamented. The umbrellas of the Siamese kings are said to be made with several separate circles one above another, while the nobles use them with only a single circle. During the middle ages there are occasional references to umbrellas.
In the basilican churches of Rome was suspended a large umbrella, and the cardinal who took his title from the church had the privilege of having an umbrella carried over his head in solemn processions. In Wright's "Domestic Manners of the English" (1862) a drawing is given from the Harleian MS. No. 603, representing an Anglo-Saxon gentleman walking out, attended by his servant carrying an umbrella with a handle that slopes backward, so as to bring the umbrella over the head of the person in front. Until a comparatively recent time umbrellas were used in Italy and France only as a protection from the sun. Kersey's "English Dictionary" (1708) defines an umbrella as a "screen commonly used by women to keep off rain." Jonas Hanway is said to have been the first man who commonly carried an umbrella in the streets of London, about 1750; at that time their use was considered a mark of great effeminacy. They were at first kept in the halls of great houses, and at coffee houses, to be used in passing from the door to the carriage.
In 1787 an English advertisement speaks of "a great assortment of much approved pocket and portable umbrellas." - For a considerable time after the introduction of umbrellas into the United States, in the latter half, of the 18th century, it was considered effeminate to carry one. Their manufacture was begun about 1800, and has risen to be an important branch of industry, the products equalling the best English and French. It is confined almost entirely to the cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. By the census of 1870, the number of hands employed directly in the making of umbrellas and canes was 2,618, and the value of the production $4,098,032; and since that time the business has maintained a steady growth. - The silk for covering umbrellas is a special branch of weaving, principally carried on about Lyons, France; but the neighborhood of Orefeld on the Rhine also produces a large quantity, and in Switzerland and England a limited quantity is made. Some silks and alpacas for umbrellas have been made in the United States, but not with much success. The manufacture of the metal parts and of the handles is generally a separate branch.
The census of 1870 gives 578 hands employed upon metallic umbrella furniture, producing a value of $724,034.