The World of Umbrellas

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Aug 08, 2009

"A businessman needs three (3) umbrellas: one to leave at the office; one to leave at home; one to leave on the train."
Paul Dickson

A few days ago Evie was startled when she tried to open one of our umbrellas. As she pushed the button near the handle, the umbrella flew open and popped off the extended shaft and fell to the ground. We couldn't believe our eyes. 

I took the two parts, put them back together and pushed that same button. The same thing happened. I knew right then the lifespan of that inexpensive umbrella had come to an end. 

Since we have had a rather wet spring and summer, umbrellas have almost become a necessity. I hardly leave the house without reaching for an aerial protector. A cloudburst could significantly dampen my ten (10) minute walk to my office. More than once I have found myself near the halfway point trying to decide to go forward or back. 

But I've also discovered not everyone depends on an umbrella like I do. Most young people rarely use them. I would never have thought that umbrella-use reflects one's age but perhaps it does. 

An umbrella is a rather unique canopy to protect us against precipitation. Sometimes colloquially we call it a gamp, brolly, umbrellery, or bumbershoot. The term parasol usually refers to a devise designed to protect from the sun. 

These portable shelters were held over the heads of ancient leaders in Assyria, Persia and Egypt. They bore the mark of distinction with their obvious practical value. 

In China, an ancient book "The Rites of Zhou" describes umbrellas in use 2400 years ago. The oldest collapsible umbrella dates to the year 21A.D. 

We find sparse evidence of umbrellas in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. That all changed in the 17th Century when France and England adopted their use. 

In Daniel DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe he constructs his own umbrella in imitation of the ones he had seen used in Brazil. "I covered it with skins," he says, "the hair outwards, so that it cast off rain like a penthouse, and kept off the sun so effectually that I could walk out in the hottest weather with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest." 

When the umbrella moved into general use by every day persons, numerous improvements came along. In China, people learned how to waterproof their umbrellas by waxing and lacquering their paper parasols. Although it is hard to prove, it was probably Samuel Fox who invented the steal-ribbed umbrella in 1852. 

Modern designs usually employ a telescoping steel trunk. New materials such as cotton, plastic film and nylon often replace the original silk. And though collapsible designs have become most popular, some users still ask for the traditional single piece, or two piece wooden walking stick umbrellas produced by the traditional makers who prefer the higher end of umbrella quality. 

Umbrellas have been used to communicate different messages. We remember looking at Mary Poppins lift to the sky stirring our imaginations about flight and those creative possibilities. Travelers Insurance uses the umbrella to communicate its ability to cover us in our time of need. 

Umbrellas can even make us smile. At a recent wedding I observed our pastor, Rev. Jack Mason, carrying an umbrella. I think everyone wants the sun to shine at a wedding but on that day we weren't sure what would happen. 

I asked Pastor Mason, "Are you praying for sunshine or rain?" I continued, "Because if you are praying for rain and you are carrying that umbrella, I am encouraged; but if you are praying for sunshine and you are carrying that umbrella, I am not." We both had a good laugh. 

Next time rain is in the forecast and you reach for your umbrella, remember that you are using a device that has helped provide shelter for people like you and me throughout history. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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