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Umbrellas were once for women only

POSTED: August 14, 2013 3:55 p.m.
 

If any of us had to come up with one word describing the last few months, I suppose it would have to be rain.

I bought several umbrellas this past season, since I tend to lose them. Buying umbrellas and thinking about the rain, made me wonder about the history of the umbrella.

That prompted a little research and then this report to my readers.

Ironically, the umbrella came about because of harsh sunshine, not rain. Historians say the umbrella originated in Mesopotamia 3,400 years ago.

Indeed the word “umbrella” is derived from the Latin word umbra, meaning shade.

By 1200 B.C., the Egyptian umbrella gained a religious significance. The celestial goddess Nut was represented by an umbrella that touched the ground only with her toes and fingertips.

Nut seems like a silly name for a goddess to me, and the umbrella image doesn’t really make that much sense, but historians say it was so.

Man began making umbrellas to represent her and the nobility began carrying them. It was considered a great honor to stand under the same umbrella with a noble.

The Greeks and Romans borrowed many things from the Egyptian culture, but when it came to the umbrella they decided it was something only for women folk.

Roman women are believed to be the ones who came up with the notion of oiling their parasols so they would be waterproof.

At public events (think outdoor amphitheaters), when there would be a slight drizzle, all of the women would open up their umbrellas, which caused viewing problems for others.

In the first century, there was such a debate about this issue that the emperor actually had to settle it. He must have been a smart man since he ruled in favor of the women.

For the most part, umbrellas and parasols remained a predominantly female accessory well into the 18th century.

One British gentleman named Jonas Hanway wanted that to change. Apparently, Hanway was quite affluent, so he had a lot of time on his hands to parade around with an umbrella over his head attempting to show society it was perfectly acceptable for a man to carry one.

Hanway reportedly endured taunting and teasing from everybody who saw him. Undaunted, however, he went everywhere (rain or shine) with his open umbrella. 

I’m not sure what is more ridiculous, that he always walked around with an umbrella, or that people actually made fun of him for doing so.

In any event, Hanway persisted with his antics and eventually men began to see the usefulness of the accessory.

While other businessmen had to hire a coach to take them around rainy London, Hanway simply walked with an umbrella that kept his fancy suit dry.

This went on for 30 years. At the end of his life, umbrellas were actually referred to as “Hanways.”

What an interesting legacy to leave. In honor of him, I think I may begin referring to umbrellas as Hanways. It’s the least I can do.

I wonder if there is still a slight stigma about men carrying umbrellas. Paul almost never uses one. Of course, that could be partly because I tend to buy ones that are pink or leopard print.

Next time you see rain clouds — and as of this writing, I can hear our practically daily dose of thunder — think about the long history of the umbrella.

If you’re a man, say a little thank-you to  Mr. Hanway for helping squash the only-women-carry-umbrella stigma.

 

Adlen Robinson is author of “Home Matters: The Guide to Organizing Your Life and Home.” E-mail her at contact@adlenrobinson.com.

 

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