Shelter for kings, queens and commoners

2008-12-18 00:00

I have to admit from the start that there is an ulterior motive to this article. I have to confess that I have never been able to sustain a meaningful, long-term relationship with an umbrella. I have left them, abandoned, forgotten and unloved in shops, trains, churches and food outlets on several continents. I beg the umbrella gods’ forgiveness and I hope this tribute will appease them.

Although umbrellas and parasols were originally designed for the humble task of offering protection against the weather, they have become cultural objects, even in Africa. I remember them hanging in rows from the rafters of the general dealer’s store in rural Matabeleland where I grew up. My very British grandmother never went anywhere in what was then Salisbury in her Morris Minor without her trusty “brolly” which had a handle shaped like a duck’s head. I am often enchanted by scenes of women on their way to or from work moving in swaying groups, their colourful umbrellas spread against rain or sun. I keep promising myself I will stop and take a photograph, but never have.

If you needed proof of Britain’s awful weather, just think of how many times you see a photograph of a member of the Royal Family using or carrying an umbrella. YouTube features a video called Royal Umbrellas which shows more than three minutes of pictures going back to when the Queen was a young woman, all of them of Royals with umbrellas. Her Majesty and Prince Charles have their own favourite umbrella makers: he prefers a Swaine Adeney Brigg while she favours a Fulton “birdcage”.

The Prince likes to carry a traditional “stick” umbrella with a substantial handle, since, as a salesman at Swaine Adeney Brigg commented: “a certain breed of people are never going to use a collapsible umbrella”. The Queen’s choice has a dome-like structure, which ensures that the royal head and shoulders are completely protected. Both manufacturers hold Royal Warrants, which are granted to people or companies who have regularly supplied goods or services for a minimum of five years to the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh or the Prince of Wales.

Umbrellas have a place in popular culture. Gene Kelly danced with one in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and as people of my generation know, Mary Poppins (1964) used her umbrella as a means of transportation. My research also revealed that the idea of a poisoned umbrella sometimes used in spy thrillers is not just an urban myth, as the Bulgarian Secret Service used a poisoned brolly to murder dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.

They have also made their way into art, as in Monet’s famous The Stroll, Manet’s Woman with a Parasol and Renoir’s The Umbrella. There are also contemporary works like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installations “The Umbrellas, Joint Project for Japan and U.S.A. Corporation”. Between 1975 and 1991 the artists installed 3 100 umbrellas in inland valleys in Ibaraki, Japan, and California “to reflect the similarities and differences in the ways of life and the use of land” in the two countries. They used blue umbrellas in Japan and yellow in California and the project cost $26 million, all financed by the sale of items related to the project like preparatory drawings, collages, and scale models.

An Irish photographer took a novel approach to photographing umbrellas in Dublin, Ireland. Séan Hillen’s work, the untitled umbrellas project, is a website gallery of 250 photographs, either of people with broken umbrellas or of discarded umbrellas he found all over the city in gutters and rubbish bins and on street corners.

The word umbrella is from the Latin word umbra, which in turn derives from the Ancient Greek ómbros, which means “shade” or “shadow”. Parasol is from para meaning “stop” or “shield”, and sol meaning “sun”. Often, the difference between the two is the material, as some parasols are not waterproof.

It was only the privileged and royalty who used them in early times, carried by servants, of course. Parasols reportedly first appeared in Egypt as early as 3 000 BCE. In ancient Rome, maid-servants carried umbrellas over women of noble birth and in ancient Greece they were regarded as “indispensible adjuncts to ladies of high fashion”.

It appears that the Chinese invented the collapsible umbrella as archaeological evidence has been found in a site dated to the sixth century BCE. There is also evidence of silk umbrellas in the Chinese Book of Ceremonies that dates back 2 400 years.

The development of the modern version occurred because of the substitution of silk and gingham for previously-used heavy oiled silk. This also affected the design, allowing the use of lighter ribs and frame. Steel frames were first used in 1852. Cotton, plastic film and nylon are now common, as are compact, collapsible or telescoping designs. For security- conscious South Africans, there is even an unbreakable, self-defence umbrella now available. I wonder what the umbrella gods make of that?

• Sources: Wikipedia;; and

free umbrellas

The Chinese have come up with an umbrella innovation: a free umbrellas service on the Shanghai metro. In August, the Shanghai Metro Operation Co began offering 5 000 umbrellas on six lines for passengers caught unprepared in a downpour. The blue umbrellas were sponsored by a local education business operation and all passengers had to do to borrow one was leave their telephone numbers with metro workers. Metro officials reported that about 60% of passengers returned the borrowed umbrellas to metro stations. If borrowers do not return the umbrellas within seven days, the metro company contacts them as a reminder.

— Shanghai Daily


An umbrella, according to popular superstition, should never be open indoors or you will bring bad luck on all the people in the building. It is thought that this superstition originated because opening one indoors could be construed as an insult to the sun, which was revered in many societies.

Other superstitions about bringing bad luck include:

• it is bad luck to give an umbrella as a gift;

• if you drop an umbrella, do not pick it up. Instead, have someone else do it for you, or you will be the recipient of bad luck;

• if a single woman drops an umbrella, she will never marry; and

• if an umbrella is opened outside when it is not needed, rain, and other bad weather will follow.



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