The oldest umbrellas, as we know them today, were used not to keep off the rain but to avoid the sun.
The basic umbrella was invented more than 4,000 years ago. There is evidence of umbrellas in the ancient art and artifacts of Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and China.
These ancient umbrellas or parasols were first designed to provide shade from the sun.Thought.co
Umbrellas feature heavily in East Asian art (and life), partly because of the heavy rainy season which, unlike my hometown in the South Island of New Zealand, falls hard without the accompanying wind. Umbrellas are a good choice.
Parasols feature large in 19th and 20th century art featuring white women, too, back when being ‘fair’ meant being very white. Parasols were a fashion accessory.
In the composition of an illustration, the umbrella is super useful. It provides a frame to draw ta viewer’s eye. In this way, it functions as another kind of archway, heavily utilised by artists.
Mushrooms and toadstools have such a strange shape that in the golden age of fairies, they featured large in children’s illustration, used variously as houses, seats, tables, and sometimes umbrellas.
The connection between mushrooms and umbrellas is clear. Grandville’s image below goes further.
There is a strong connection between the umbrella and the circus, and the circus often indicates the carnivalesque. Umbrellas ostensibly help a tightrope walker to maintain balance. (Is that actually true?) I suspect it simply provides the tightrope walker a little false reassurance, that the umbrella would function as a mini parachute should they fall.
The umbrella allows a young child freedom, to go outside and play, even in the rain. They are also associated with beach scenes, all good fun. An umbrella in the bath is comically ridiculous.
Symbolically, like the child characters using an umbrella in the bath, they can be used to visually convey the idea that small measures make no difference in a deluge of problems. In English we use ‘Band-aid’ in a similar way, as in ‘Band-aid over a gaping wound’. The umbrella is less gory.
If anyone’s ever tried jumping from a high space holding an umbrella you’ll already be aware that the umbrella won’t make you float softly onto the earth. It cowardly turns itself inside out, leaving you to crash land. Perhaps these boy had been to the circus and seen the tightrope walker use one.
When an umbrella works it’s pretty impressive. But there are few things more pathetic looking than a broken umbrella. They can look almost batlike.
Umbrellas have other practical uses, especially for the hook at the end. As storytellers, the options are endless.
Header art by Theodore Levigne (1848 – 1912).