The concept of the umbrella has long preceded its invention. Man has been consumed by his necessity and obsession for shelter, comfort and convenience since the beginning of time

Parasol vs. Umbrella & Changing Culture

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Parasol vs. Umbrella & Changing Culture
The duality of the parasol and umbrella dates back to when the umbrella was first conceived, is it for shelter against the elements? Or from the hot, scorching sun? The parasol and umbrella are essential the same structure, they have the same design and are in a sense identical to each other in ways except one is catered to block out the sun and the other harsher weather. The parasol dates back to the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs and other kings and royalty as was their custom when they walked to have a servant give them shade on hot days. In addition, parasols were intricately designed for showing off power and prestige, as well as remaining elegant and luxurious. However, its counterpart, the umbrella, remained a bulky and very brutish instrument to use in the early years. Throughout time, the parasol has carried the concept of the umbrella and kept it alive by its associations with the church, royalty and high society. Most times, people would not even bother to venture out in the rain, let alone want to struggle with an umbrella. The distinction between the two separate lives of the parasol and umbrella is important because the parasol has dominating the umbrella throughout most of history up until the middle to late 1800’s and the present.
What constituted this change in culture is my primary question. It seemed as if the parasol had won the battle because of its symbolism and relationship to the church, royalty and high society. The parasol was viewed as a luxury item, one in which distinguished between rank and was often used as a device in courtship since the time of the Ancient Greeks. However, all the while the umbrella kept refining itself little by little and kept offering shelter and comfort to those who needed to go out in the rain, sleet, snow or any other severe weather. How did the umbrella become what it is today if it was always dominated by the parasol?
It is important to note that the scope of that question is directly at Europe, mostly England for that matter for catching up late. The umbrella flourished in Asia, Africa, and other parts of Europe as well as the East, but England was slow to get around. This seems surprising given the climate in England, but it was not until the 1750’s that a man dare walk the streets with an umbrella and not care what others thoughts. Lieutenant Colonel Wolfe, writing from Paris in 1752, realizes that many people in Paris have umbrellas and yet it does not nearly rain as much as in England, and wonders why. Around that time, Jonas Hanway makes his return from Asia and begins carrying an umbrella with him around the streets of England for the next fifty years. Jonas Hanway was a wealthy philanthropist who had traveled the world and brought back with him the custom of carrying an umbrella with him wherever he went; he thought it went particularly well with his out and that a furled or open umbrella made him look distinguished. At that time, and before, the view towards umbrellas can be described as so: The Female Tatler for 12 December 1709 writes: “The young gentleman belonging to the custom house, that for fear of the rain borrowed the umbrella at Will’s coffee house, in Cornhill, of the mistress, is hereby advertised that to be dry from the head to foot on the like occasion, he shall be welcome to the maid’s patterns.” (Crawford, 106). In addition to having been thought to be only a women’s item, in 1656 John Tradescant published a book called The Collection of Rarities, in it it listed the umbrella under “utensils.” Although it is important to understand that from the 1500’s to 1750’s, the parasol was a dominant fixture in the lives of women, royalty and the church for reasons of symbolism, fashion, comfort, luxury and accessory. Paris had annual fashion shows in which the latest models of parasols would be displayed. Furthermore, the umbrella was still at a point in its production where it could not compare to the ease of the parasol and could not perform its function of sheltering its owners from the weather very well. However, all this started to change in the late 1700’s, which not coincidently was the time when people’s perceptions of the umbrella changed.
Due to technological improvements, the umbrella was able to bridge the gap between the parasol and itself by offering people a different, better kind of comfort. People did not worry about the sun so much as they did about the heavy rain and severe weather. The parasol was a novelty that caught on in the higher circles, but was of no use to the average person in Europe, and last anyone checked, there are always a significant number more average people than well off people, monetarily speaking. In addition, after Jonas Hanway had shown England that the umbrella can be an every day accessory it began to become one. He obviously was not the only factor, but people began to realize the usefulness of the umbrella and because it had improved so much and its costs were decreased significantly, this allowed it to challenge its counterpart the parasol. And although the parasol is nice, would you really rather have a parasol than an umbrella in England. However, the parasol remained a luxury item and remained strong up until the wars began in the early 1900’s. Umbrella popularity and sales also fell as manufacturers began to develop and create weapons. Along with that came tough times and high taxes. Soon after that, the idea of a luxury item such as a parasol was not as interesting to a majority of people anymore. It had seemed their values had shifted more towards usefulness rather than luxury, as they should have in a situation such as that. French fashion shows dropped the parasol from their collections all together and it had seemed as if it had succumbed; however, it was still used by royalty and clergy then and even today.
The umbrella has remained practically unchanged throughout thousands of years and has survived through literature, art, fashion, religion, royalty, popular culture, and so much more because it has always proven useful and necessary to human beings. The umbrella fulfills the necessity we have for comfort, shelter, protection and convenience. As society evolved over time from agricultural and rural societies into cities and civilizations, there were cultural shifts that shook people’s values. If I was going to take anything away from this project it would be that “things” speak to us, we just have to find a way to hear them. Each thing has a story and a past, and woven in its past is human interaction and our history. We have always relied on things since the beginning of our time on Earth, and will continue to rely on them so long as they remain useful and fulfill our needs, not our wants (parasol). The umbrella is a clear example of how a simple thing, such as an umbrella, can tell a powerful story about how people have changed throughout time and the progression our race has made and is making currently toward the values we assume are most important at the time. A thing is not just an inanimate object, quite the opposite, it tells a history, our history, and it is important that we acknowledge the abilities things give because without them we would not be here.
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