Anyone can “get” an umbrella today, but that wasn’t always the case. Umbrellas of any type were once reserved for royalty, and required servants to manage them. Today, umbrellas are much easier to use and are “managed” only by the person holding the handle. Though you can buy a very expensive umbrella, they can also be gotten at affordable prices and are not limited to the wealthy. So, we know everyone can get them, but do they? Just how big is the umbrella market?
The first umbrellas weren’t much like umbrellas at all. Both the materials they were made of and the reasons they were used varied. In Egypt, “umbrellas,” frames covered with palm leaves and later with cloth, were carried and held in place over the heads of the pharos and entourage, to protect them from the sun. In Rome, canvas tarps were used on the battlefield to protect the emperor and military leaders from rain. Neither was what we consider to be an umbrella, but it got the job done for those who were lucky enough to be under it.
Umbrellas developed their basic form in Asia, where they had been made of an expandable canopy of bamboo, covered with silk – usually to protect delicate skin against the sun but when waterproofing and thicker fabric were added, could also shield the carrier from the rain. Still, umbrellas did not come into public use until the beginning of the 18th century and it was considered a “womanly” object. By the mid-1700s, sturdier umbrellas were constructed for use by men, intended to serve dual purpose as a weapon. By the end of the 18th century, there were several manufacturers in Europe and in 1928, the “pocket umbrella” appeared.
Bamboo and wood were replaced with steel, silk was replaced with heavier cotton, plastic film, and nylon. There have been several forms, not all of which made it through the rain. The folding umbrella developed into a workable unit, though many tried the umbrella hat did not. The last attempt at an umbrella hat was reportedly in 1987, more than a century after the failure of the first hat version.
Thanks to innovation, technology and people who have “enough sense to come in out of the rain,” the umbrella market is a widely recognized consumer product which has a global market. U.S. consumers purchase over 30 million umbrellas each year, for a total of nearly $350 million.
Most umbrellas are made in China’s manufacturing provinces but technology to improve them is actively pursued in the U.S. So much improvement is in the making, that the U.S. Patent Office reports there are over 3,000 active patents and they employ four patent examiners to manage applications for new ideas, mainly because “new” umbrella ideas aren’t often actually new ideas. The umbrella is a fairly simple thing and a revolutionary change isn’t really needed, or even possible in most cases – according to Totes, the U.S.’ largest umbrella producer.
How big is the umbrella market? It’s big enough that the paltry 33 million purchased by U.S. consumers every year only accounts for about 10 percent of umbrella production and, though China is the manufacturing leader by far, Belgium and Germany’s production is growing at 37 and 23 percent per year. While China exports 92% of its product, all of the U.S.-made umbrellas stay home.