Umbrellas and parasols have been in use for 4,000 years or more. The need to protect ourselves from the elements reaches back to the stone age and every developed civilization on record has some history of umbrella or parasol use. Evidence of this is documented by pictographs, carvings, folklore, and even the objects themselves. Many people consider them interchangeable, but there are some differences between umbrellas and parasols.
The English language can be difficult to navigate. The word “umbrella” is really a diminutive of the Latin word “umbra.” In Latin, umbra was a specific description of the great shadow cast on the earth during a solar eclipse. Umbrella “casts a little shadow.” That would seem to indicate that an umbrella is used to protect from the sun, until you consider the word “parasol.”
Parasol, also a Latin word, is a combination of the root words “para” which means next to, aside, and nearby while “sol” is “light.” Para-sol translates to “next to the light,” also indicating that a parasol is used to shield a person from the light.
Direct translation of both words would indicate that they are the same but every language similar to our own uses two different words for umbrella and parasol
- French – parapluie and parasol
- Italian – ombrella and parasole
- Portuguese – guarda-chuva and guarda-sol
- Spanish – paraguas and sombrilla
Every culture considers the two objects to be different. The most obvious connection is seen in French and Portuguese – casting aside water and casting aside light.
During the times of emperors, kings, pharaohs and other inherited rule, royals were the only people who could command the use of an umbrella or parasol. In ancient Egypt, these shades were carried by slaves for protection against the sun and the appearance of pale skin was a sign of wealth and power. In China, the royals needed protection from the rain and a method to waterproof silk was developed. They may also have been the inventors of the fabric-over-bamboo, expanding design.
Use of the Chinese-type design was documented in Ancient Rome and Greece but were carried for women, generally wealthy. The military used larger devices, constructed of leather, to shield commanders from rain. After the collapse of the Roman Empire – use of both all but disappeared. Umbrella and parasol migration to the rest of Europe was not seen until after the Renaissance when they were again, mainly used for women – and mainly for sun.
This trend continued until the mid-1700s when the lighter, women’s devices began to be used by men. They became heavier and larger, and were increasingly designed to be used against rain. They were sturdy enough to be used as a walking stick or a weapon and common enough that, unlike a sword, their appearance caused no concern.
The dainty, light, feminine parasol and the heavier, masculine umbrella, similar in design, but different in size and function. Though parasols did make their way to the U.S, outside of the wealthy, they have never seen much use. We are a hardy bunch and most people, including women, did not want protection from the sun. Until knowledge of skin cancer became clear, tanned skin was a sign of wealth and leisure.
We do still use umbrellas for the rain – they come in many sizes, are made of many fabrics, may be large or small – or even different in shape. Even when we use an expandable shade against the sun – we usually call it a “beach umbrella.”
Singing in the rain was great for Gene Kelly and playing in the rain is great for young children but getting caught in the rain isn’t always fun.