What do Cleopatra, Winston Churchill and Mary Poppins have in common? Well, for one thing, they all used umbrellas. Have you ever wondered about umbrellas? Where do they come from? Who invented them? What’s their story? Practical tools of everyday life, umbrellas have a surprisingly long history. Originating over 5,000 years ago in the Middle and Far East, umbrellas have spread across the globe and through time to even reach such faraway places as Morrison County, Minnesota.
Historical evidence shows that umbrellas were used in a variety of ancient cultures. In Egypt and parts of Africa and Asia, umbrellas served as symbols of royalty. In ancient Greece, they are believed to have played an important part in certain religious ceremonies. Umbrellas did not arrive in Europe until the sixteenth century and it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the first umbrella is recorded to have appeared in the United States.
The main feature of umbrellas is their protective canopy. Typically mounted on a collapsible framework of ribs, umbrella canopies have been made from a variety of fibrous materials, including reed and oilpaper. Cotton, linen and silk were the most popular fabrics for umbrella canopies until the mid-twentieth century. Woven from highly absorbent natural fibers, all three are valued for their strength and versatility.
During one of my most recent skirmishes with the lack of space issue in the Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) Collections Rooms, I repacked a box containing an assortment of what can best be described as “things with handles”. I was surprised and delighted to discover that the box contained what turned out to be a wonderful collection of umbrellas and parasols. Though small, the collection covers a wide range of materials and styles.
Several of the umbrellas in the collection appear to have been made for men. Most have black cotton canopies and handles with angular L-shaped or metal-trimmed ends, features that have been typical for men’s umbrella fashions in the United States and Europe. The only woman’s umbrella in the collection has a lightweight bamboo handle with a curved end. The tan silk canopy of this umbrella is beautifully trimmed with a decorative ruffled border and is lined with a brilliant red silk.
Until fairly recently, silk was one of the top fabric choices for umbrellas, particularly those made for women. The lighter and smaller parasols were manufactured almost exclusively of silk. Long prized as a luxury fabric, silk unfortunately does not stand up well to the damaging effects of the sun. MCHS has four beautiful silk parasols, two of which are in excellent condition. One is a child’s parasol that was donated to MCHS in 1969 by Gladys Brown (1894-1981), the daughter of Maud Rice and Lewis Dunham Brown. Lewis Dunham Brown owned and operated the Pioneer Drug Store in downtown Little Falls, Minnesota. Gladys Brown’s parasol has a child-size canopy that is constructed of four triangular sections of a soft cream silk. In typical Victorian fashion, this umbrella is elegantly trimmed with three bands of light green silk set in a graceful zigzag pattern.
Perhaps the most unique umbrella in the collection is a large reed and bamboo umbrella that was made in China. Donated to MCHS in 1949 by Mrs. Rev. S. S. Farley, this stick-style umbrella is believed to have been used for display purposes at a local store. The umbrella’s multiple reed ribs are painted red except for a three-inch wide band around the outer edge that is painted green. The umbrella is three feet high and has a thick bamboo shank.
Umbrellas, and especially parasols, have recently begun to show up as a hot new fashion trend in the haute couture fashion world. The thought of a tall lanky supermodel gliding down a Paris runway holding a tiny umbrella or parasol makes me want to chuckle. What would Cleopatra think if she knew? Perhaps she is smiling in her sarcophagus!
By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2005, Morrison County Historical Society