Trend alert! Though I have no national statistics to support my anecdata, this summer I have noticed a lot of people in the DC area carrying umbrellas to ward off the sun. (I’ve also seen a lot of guys in suspenders, but that will have to wait for another post.) More and more women – and some men; after all, UV rays do not discriminate – are reclaiming the umbrella as a sunshade.

An outing on Chevy Chase Lake, ca. 1917.  The arrow points to Elsie Pitt Chaney.  Donated by Edward E. Chaney.

The umbrella/sunshade/parasol is an ancient idea, but it fell out of fashion in 20th century America. “Umbrella” (from Italian, 16th century) and “parasol” (from French, early 17th century) both originally referred to sunshades. In early 18th century France and England, carrying an umbrella was mildly embarrassing because it signaled to the world that you couldn’t afford a closed carriage. However, Anne Wood Murray of the Smithsonian (Antiques, 1961) surveyed American newspapers from the second half of the 18th century, and found multiple advertisements for the sale and repair of stylish, expensive umbrellas. By the 19th century, American and European women were often seen carrying parasols (as they were now called) in the latest styles.

Two ladies remain cheerful (and shaded) while they wait for their broken-down car to be repaired, near present-day White Flint, circa 1915.  Photo by Lewis Reed, donated by the Reed family.

Carriage parasols, designed for sitting decoratively in an open vehicle, were typically festive and tiny; some had folding handles (for convenient storage) or tilting tops (to better shade your face as you traveled). Walking parasols were a little sturdier, with longer ferrules (the bit at the top of the awning), sticks and handles. There were even “full-dress parasols” for particularly formal occasions. “Umbrella” came to mean the larger, more serviceable rain guards that we think of today, though of course they could still do double-duty as sunshades.

These gentlemen – watching the harness racing at the Rockville fairgrounds, circa 1910 – would probably have called their plain, manly sunshades “umbrellas.” 

Like many artifacts, parasols and umbrellas can be dated by changes in style, shape, material, and technology. For example, steel ribs were introduced in the 1840s, replacing the earlier and more expensive whalebone. Fringed edges were popular in the 1840s and ‘50s; a pagoda-like shade was stylish in the early 1860s; knob-shaped handles were all the rage in the 1880s.

Sisters Kathryn, Eleanor and Clara Beall of Olney, 1894.  Donated by Katherine Beall Adams.

Parasols lasted into the early 20th century, but then faded away, leaving only their rain-shielding cousins behind. Why?  In 1961, Anne M. Buck, Keeper of the Gallery of English Costume at Platt Hall (UK), blamed the fact that “today women turn their bare heads and faces to the sun like worshipers.” In 2012-today, though, we’ve moved back toward a view of sun exposure as a bad thing – though we’re protecting our skin for health, rather than aesthetic, reasons. So let’s bring back the parasol! And I don’t mean simply trotting out our department store umbrellas on a sunny day.  Think of the boost to the economy if elaborately decorative sunshades were a major market, not just a craft-show novelty.

The Library holdings include many photos of Montgomery County residents holding parasols and umbrellas; I’ve added in a few here. There are several pieces in the artifact collections as well, but unfortunately most of the parasols were donated in poor condition. (The umbrellas have fared a little better, being somewhat sturdier.) A slightly different problem is the fact that most of them are unrelated to Montgomery County, as for many years we accepted items like ones that county residents may have owned and used. And anyway, this post is getting kind of long and involved. So rather than tossing in all our cute but broken parasols, here’s a link to the turkey parasol featured last year plus a bonus one, below: Circa 1850, specific history unknown, donated by Barbara Smith. It has a silk cover, steel ribs and frame, and carved wooden handle. The ferrule has a little carved ring, and the entire thing is only a little over two feet long. The decorative rings and the short length mean this was a carriage parasol; for strolling or walking, a longer stick and a stout ferrule made a useful pseudo-cane when the sun wasn’t too strong.

In short (too late!) parasols are pretty fantastic, and we should all make an effort to bring them back into fashion. I can’t help but end this post with links to many, many more fabulous parasols in other museum collections (below), and a quote from one of my favorite novelists, Elizabeth Peters, whose Victorian heroine Amelia Peabody made good use of her own walking parasol:
“My parasol proved useful in pushing through [the crowd]; I had to apply the ferrule quite sharply to the backs of several gentlemen before they would move.” From Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters, 1975

Parasols at the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

Parasols at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Parasols at the Victoria & Albert, London

Parasols at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art