The long history of the umbrella makes it impossible to determine who invented it first. But there is strong evidence indicating the device has been used by many ancient cultures and civilizations.
Ancient Middle East
The word parasol was synonymous with umbrella during its early history. Archaeologists have discovered bas relief in Nineveh showing he parasol. It is held by a servant over the head of the king to protect him from the sun’s heat. Except for the connecting curtain, it looks a lot like the modern day umbrella.
The Persians also employed the umbrella. Several sculptures have been unearthed showing attendants holding an umbrella over the king. The history of the umbrella goes back as far as ancient Egypt. The umbrella there assumed the form of a flagellum. This was a fan made up of palm leaves fastened on a long stick.
Ancient Greece and Rome
In 5th century Greece, the umbrella was frequently used by women. It wasn’t just used to shield them from heat; it was also a fashion accessory. Aristophanes notes that the umbrella (called skiadeion) could be opened and closed.
Male Greeks rarely used the umbrella as it was seen as a female fashion accessory. It also had some religious significance as it was utilized in Dionysian rites.
Roman writers like Ovid made frequent mention of the parasol. Even at this stage in the history of the umbrella, it was still used mainly by women. However it was employed mostly for fashion rather than protection from rain or heat.
The Umbrella in Asia
The umbrella was widely used in ancient China. There is evidence that umbrellas was had existed by 21 AD. The Chinese historians and writers at the time stated it was used for ceremonial carriages. Some collapsible umbrellas have been found in parts of Korea.
The Zhou Li, a 2,400 Chinese book, contains descriptions of an instrument that bear resemblance to an umbrella. According to some historical accounts, the Chinese concept of the umbrella reached Korea. From there it made its way to Japan, Persia and the European continent.
The History of the Umbrella in Europe
During the Middle Ages, the umbrella was known but not widely used. It was only in the 17th century that its use became a bit more commonplace. The umbrella was often carried by attendants and set over their master’s head.
By the early 1600s, the umbrellas had entered dictionaries and taken on the definition we use today. From the 19th century onwards, improvements to the umbrella were made. Silk and gingham were used instead of oiled silk.
In 1862, the steel ribbed umbrella was developed by Sam Fox. Today’s models have also replaced silk with cotton, plastic and other materials. As in the past, umbrellas are still considered a fashion accessory.
The history of the umbrella is actually a fascinating one. Going through its development, you will actually end up learning about other cultures in the process, depending on how they used it.