Items such as umbrellas and parasols to give shelter from rain or shade from the sun have a long history; they appear in bas reliefs from Assyria in 700 BC, from archaeological digs in China and in other ancient cultures. They seem to come late to Western Europe, one of the earliest depictions being in Jost Amman’s (1539-91) engraving of the Grand Procession of the Doge of Venice.
The appearance of the word in English comes at the end of the 16th century. Florio Italian English dictionary, A World of Words (1598), has the Italian word Ombrella translated as “a kind of round fan or shadowing that they use to ride with in sommer in Italy, a little shade.” There is a watercolour of a horseman with an umbrella dated 1598 on Pinterest, it supposedly comes from the LACMAC (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) collection, but I have not been able to find it on the museum’s website.
Coryat in his Crudities (1611)also speaks of umbrellas as being carried by Italian horsemen, and costing “ at the least a duckat.” He describes them thus; “These are made of leather, something answerable to the forme of a little cannopy, & hooped in the inside with divers little wooden hoopes that extend the umbrella in a pretty large compasse. They are used especially by horsemen, who carry them in their hands when they ride, fastening the end of the handle upon one of their thighs, and they impart so large a shadow unto them, that it keepeth the heate of the sunne from the upper parts of their bodies.”
So far the references are solely to umbrellas being used for shade, and both Randle Cotgrave's Dictionary of the French and English Tongues (1614)and Fynes Moryson's Itinerary (1617) have this meaning for the word. The term parasol seems to appear later, an early description is in 1676 when John Locke in his Journal of his Travels in France writes of, “Parasols, a pretty sort of cover for women riding in the sun, made of straw, something like the fashion of tin covers for dishes.”
By the early 17th century portraits are beginning to appear containing umbrellas, but not in England. Two from the 1620s are Van Dyck’s 1623 painting of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi (Figure 1), and a portrait now in Versailles of Ann of Austria, attributed to Jean de St Igny, (Figure 2) where the umbrella behind her is shut. In 1670 Charles Le Brun painted Chancellor Séguier and his suite, a painting now in the Musée du Louvre. (Figure 3)
By the beginning of the 18th century their use for by women keeping off the rain, was established in England, so that John Kersey's Dictionary (1708) describes an umbrella as a "screen commonly used by women to keep off rain". John Gay in his Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716) writes of “underneath th’ umbrella’s oily shed, Safe thro' the wet, on clinging pattens tread.” While Dean Swift in issue 228 of The Tatler (1710) wrote that, “The tucked-up sempstress walks with hasty strides, While streams run down her oil'd umbrella's sides.”
It seems that some in London provided umbrella’s for their clients. In Thomas Baker’s play The Fine Lady’s Airs (1709) the aptly named Mr. Nicknack declares that “Mrs. Trapes in Leadenhall Street is hawling away the Umbrellas for the walking Gentry.” While a December 1709 issue of the Female Tatler advises somewhat sarcastically that, “The young gentleman borrowing the umbrella belonging to Wills Coffee House in Cornhill, of the mistress, is hereby advertised that, to be dry from head to foot on the like occasion, he shall be welcome to the maid’s pattens.”
Defoe in Robinson Crusoe (1719), gets Crusoe to make himself an umbrella, writing that, “"I spent a great deal of time and pains to make an umbrella....it was a most useful thing to me, as well for the rains as for the heats. I took a world of pains at it, and it was a great while before I could make anything likely to hold; ... I spoiled two or three before I made one to my mind. But at last I made one that answered indifferently well; the main difficulty I found was to make it to let down. I could make it spread, but if it did not let down too, and draw in, it would not be portable for me any way but just over my head, which would not do. However, at last, as I said, I made one to answer. I covered it with skins, the hair upwards, so that it cast off the rain like a pent-house, and kept off the sun so effectually that I could walk out in the hottest of the weather with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest, and when I had no need of it, I could close it, and carry it under my arm."
All three illustrations are from wikimedia commons, and links have been made to them.