Many of us apply sunscreen when we go to the beach. But walking outside under the fierce summer sun – even if it’s to run a quick errand – can be taxing: We sweat, we get exhausted, we burn and we expose ourselves to dangerous UV rays. In Asian countries, many people have a convenient tool at their disposal: They’ll often use umbrellas to shield them from the sun’s powerful rays.
In the US, Australia and the UK, even though most people own an umbrella to keep them dry when it’s raining, almost no one uses one for sun protection. Yet at one time, trendsetting American women did use umbrellas for sun protection.
As a historian of technology, I’m interested in why some technologies are readily accepted by some groups but not by others. Unlike an expensive technology that may be very challenging to learn how to use – such as a car with a manual transmission – the umbrella is cheap, readily accessible and easy to use.
So why did the sun umbrella fall out of favor in the west? And can we – both women and men – ever be convinced to carry an umbrella when it’s hot and sunny, not just when it’s wet?
The origin of the word “parasol” comes from the French “para,” for “stop,” and “sol,” for sun. And “umbrella” originates from the Latin “umbra,” which means “shade” or “shadow.”
Thousands of years ago, servants in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India wielded large umbrellas to shade rulers from the sun. Umbrellas made for individual use didn’t appear in Europe until the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and they were deployed to ward off both the sun and the rain. Fashionable, wealthy women primarily used them, a reflection of the umbrella’s high cost and the status it denoted.
By the 1850s, the introduction of folding metal ribs and lighter materials, like silk, reduced the weight and cost of the umbrella, transforming it into an essential component of the wardrobes of middle-class and upper-class women.