Umbrella: Signs and Symbols

Mesquita (Great Mosque)

Cordoba Cathedral, Cordoba,
Andalucia, Spain. Founded circa 785.

Pointed arched made from brick and stone

Cortauld Institute Gallery, London

Note the ribbed, umbrella-shaped dome at the top of the picture.

For several thousand years, in China, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle and Far East, the umbrella was reserved for kings and queens, chiefs and leaders. It was both a mark of superiority and a symbol of the regent's idealized role as protector of his or her "children." Often it was part of the throne, the seat of authority. During the Middle Ages it became the "canopy of state" in places of worship. In Christian churches it was an essential part of pontifical regalia, sheltering the sacred Host in liturgical processions. It was often incorporated into architectural conceptions, as in the eighth-century mosque pictured above.

Ever since Clark's umbrella was swept down a rain-swollen ravine into the Missouri River on that memorable day, 29 June 1805,1 it has remained merely an insignificant footnote in the narrative of the expedition. Still, its surprising presence raises several questions. What might it have looked like? Why was Clark carrying an umbrella? And why Clark only?

This ordinary and sometimes indispensable contraption is a monument to human inventiveness driven by the normal human impulse to keep the brain cool and the body dry. But the historic moment of its origin is so remote and obscure that we can't be certain which it was originally contrived to protect its user from, the sun or the rain.

By the early seventeenth century the umbrella had begun its migration westward into Europe along the main commercial routes from the Middle East. Leaving behind its original names—in Thailand, for instance, it is a Rom, the Thai word for shade—the instrument donned new but similarly descriptive names—in Italy, ombrello ("little shade") and ombrellino ("little umbrella"), both from the Latin noun umbra; in France, parapluie ("rain shelter") and parasole ("sun shelter"); in Germany, Regenschirm and Sonnenschirm; in English-speaking countries, umbrella for rain, and parasol for sun.

Until the mid-eighteenth century it was used only by women of the uppermost classes, who "wore" it as part of haute couture. Correspondingly, an umbrella in a man's hand was regarded as a sign of effeminacy, unless he was holding it for a lady so that she could lift her skirts out of the mud. Furthermore, the use of an umbrella by a gentleman would make it appear to others that he couldn't afford to hire, much less own, a carriage. On the other hand, on a rainy day it was a servant's duty, and a mandatory sign of respect, to hold one over a gentleman between the door of an inn and his carriage at the curb. Less privileged men, however, including armies throughout Europe and the United States, wore oiled cotton or linen cloaks, with hats made of naturally waterproof beaver-fur felt. Indeed, that was the circumstance which drove uncountable numbers of men—including the Corps of Discovery—to pursue that pudgy rodent, Castor canadensis, throughout Northwestern North America for well over a hundred years.

By the end of the eighteenth century the umbrella was firmly established among both men and women of the upper classes in Europe and America, even on the frontier. In St. Louis there was one in the estate of a wealthy merchant who died in 1771, when the village was only seven years old.2 The parasol, the umbrella's fair-weather counterpart, also remained an important part of a young woman's wardrobe, complete with a repertoire of parasolic gestures for coping with suitors.3

The parasol fell out of fashion early in the twentieth century, except over the patio table—and the umbrella as rain-shelter became merely a nuisance when the personal automobile, as well as urban mass transit, kept virtually every person in the temperate latitudes comfortably out of the rain, most of the time. Besides, progress in the manufacture of synthetic fabrics during the second half of the twentieth century made water-repellent outer garments universally affordable. It is safe to say that by the beginning of the present century the umbrella was a foreign object to many people born less than thirty years ago. Even on the Northwest Coast, where the average annual rainfall approaches 100 inches, only tourists carry umbrellas.

Rainwear on the road

When the expedition began, most of the men in the Corps evidently were issued tall hats with brims made of waterproof beaver-felt. It is not known how long those lasted, but it is certain that they had worn out, blown away or been discarded by the time the men moved into Fort Clatsop, for that winter the captains bought new rain-proof hats for the entire party from the local Indians.

Occasionally the captains erected a shelter for their formal meetings with Indians, as on 17 August 1805 for their council with the leaders of the Shoshones. They "formed a canopy of one of our large sails and planted some willow brush in the ground to form a shade for the Indians to set under while we spoke to them." But there is no evidence in any of the journals that they ever used Clark's umbrella as a symbol of authority or paternalistic protection. As strange and ingenious a machine as it might have appeared to Indian onlookers—though they might well have understood the symbolism—apparently it was never used merely as "medicine," nor as a symbol of the superiority of Euroamerican civilization, like the compass or Lewis's air gun.

1. For the whole story of 29 June 1805, see Discovery Path To the Great Falls, Close Call at the Falls.

2. Robert J. Moore, Jr., and Michael Haynes, Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2003), 221.

3. T. S. Crawford, A History of the Umbrella (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1970). William Sangster, Umbrellas and Their History, (accessed January 7, 2004).

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities