umbrella, a small canopy used as a protection against the sun in China, Egypt, and elsewhere in remote antiquity. It was often an emblem of rank. During the Middle Ages the umbrella became almost extinct in Europe; its usefulness was not rediscovered until the late 16th cent., when it was introduced as the parapluie (Fr., = against the rain). Its use did not become general, however, until the late 18th cent., when it is said to have been introduced in England by Jonas Hanway; umbrellas were first manufactured on the Continent after 1787. Their construction has not varied greatly through the ages though modern materials, such as steel for the ribs and synthetic fabrics for the covering, have replaced the oiled paper, bamboo, and wood of the ancient versions. In the mid-19th cent. the parasol (Fr., = against the sun) emerged, distinguished from the umbrella in being solely a sunshade, and became, until the coming of the automobile, a necessary accessory of dress. Within the obvious limitations of its form, the modern umbrella has taken on a variety of shapes, from nearly flat to the long, curved bird-cage design.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.