Today, umbrellas are consumer items and sometimes even seen as disposable. Parasols are nothing more than a distant memory associated with sunny strolls through French formal gardens. However, it hasn't always been like this. Let's find out more…

Umbrellas first appeared in China in the 12th century BC and were used in Rome from the 1st century AD to shelter from the sun at the theater and during chariot races. In 16th-century Japan, parasols protected people from the whims of the weather and were a must-have fashion accessory for all seasons.

When Catherine de' Medici arrived in France in 1533, her luggage included a parasol and a fan. In 1718, the Académie française (the French language council) accepted the use of the term "parapluie" (umbrella) to refer to a device which protected the user from either sun or rain.

From the French Revolution to the beginning of the 20th century, nearly 1,400 patents were filed detailing all the innovations that lead to the creation of the umbrella as we know it today.

Umbrella, parasol and ...
The umbrella and parasol are both constructed in the same way, although the latter is not waterproof and only protects the user from the sun. In France, in the 19th century, other terms were used to refer to the umbrella, such as "marquise" (canopy) and "en-cas", "encas" or even "en-tout-cas" (all variations on the French for "in any case"). The umbraculum is a flat, long-handled umbrella used to provide shade for the Blessed Sacrament, the Pope or other senior Church dignitaries. There are also other terms that refer to umbrellas and parasols, some more poetic than others, such as "paraverse" and "abris de lumière".
The umbrella and advertising
In the 19th century, not everyone could afford an umbrella or parasol. Among members of a certain level of society, these everyday items drew a great deal of attention whenever they were seen, and as a result they began to be branded.

In this century of advertising and posters, umbrellas and parasols became advertising media in their own right.

In the 19th century, umbrella and parasol manufacturers were mostly based in Paris and other cities. This was possibly because they wanted to have direct contact with their customers and with any new innovations that were emerging. These manufacturers were always willing to try out new fabrics and use more modern methods. However, the objects' portability lead to certain inventors making some bizarre improvements that did not last…

…such as this rescue umbrella, a gadget worthy of a James Bond movie.

A Luxury object
Today, the umbrella is impersonal: we lend it out, we lose it, we buy another one. This was not the case in the 19th century, when umbrellas were made by skilled workers using expensive materials. Their high cost made them the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.

After the French Revolution, the umbrella (like the cane) was seen as a symbol of the bourgeoisie and more particularly of "rentiers," land owners with a private income.

The collapsible umbrella
Although collapsible umbrellas and parasols were already around at the beginning of the 19th century (and probably before), during the next hundred years inventors improved the design to make them smaller and enable users to take them almost anywhere.

Various systems were patented for this purpose. The umbrellas and parasols developed in the 19th century already had all the technical innovations that are modelled in today's versions.

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Conception et réalisation : service Archives, INPI

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