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Parasols

Ackermann’s Repository, 1813, Morning Walking Dress
Ackermann’s Repository, 1813, Morning Walking Dress

The exquisite creamy complexion of the Regency maid, though a far cry from the powdered beauties of the previous century, required much care, if one wished to avoid a sunburn or freckles. One need only recall the Bingley sisters’ disdain at Elizabeth Bennet’s “brown” complexion, gained from her summer travels to acknowledge that the bonnet and parasol were essential to outdoor activities. Made of anything from lace to cotton and silk, they could also be effective against light rain.

“Charlotte was to go [to Sanditon]. . . & to buy new Parasols, new Gloves, & new Brooches, for her sisters & herself at the Library. . .”
Sanditon; Chapter 2

The word “parasol” (Spanish or French) is a combination of para, meaning to stop or to shield, and sol, meaning sun. “Parapluie” (French) similarly consists of para combined with pluie, which means rain (which in turn derives from pluvia, the Latin word for rain). Hence, a parasol shields from sunlight while a parapluie shields from rain. (Parachute means shield from falls.)

That the use of the umbrella or parasol—though not unknown—was not very common during the earlier half of the eighteenth century, is evident from the fact that General (then Lieut.-Colonel) James Wolfe, writing from Paris in 1752, speaks of the people there using umbrellas for the sun and rain, and wonders that a similar practice does not obtain in England. Just about the same time they seem to have come into general use, and that pretty rapidly, as people found their value, and got over the shyness natural to a first introduction. Jonas Hanway, the founder of the Magdalen Hospital, has the credit of being the first man who ventured to dare public reproach and ridicule by carrying one habitually in London. As he died in 1786, and he is said to have carried an umbrella for thirty years, the date of its first use by him may be set down at about 1750. John Macdonaldrelates that in 1770, he used to be greeted with the shout, “Frenchman, Frenchman! why don’t you call a coach?” whenever he went out with his umbrella. By 1788 however they seem to have been accepted: a London newspaper advertises the sale of ‘improved and pocket Umbrellas, on steel frames, with every other kind of common Umbrella.’ 
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18th Century Umbrellas

When first we came, all the umbrellas were up, but now the pavements are getting very white again.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Bath, May 17, 1799

Umbrellas often appear in Austen's novels as a chivalrous response to a lady's need. From left to right, Persuasion, Emma, Mansfield Park.
Umbrellas often appear in Austen’s novels as a chivalrous response to a lady’s need. L-R Persuasion, Emma, Mansfield Park.

During the 17th century, ladies used parasols for protection from the sun. A century later they were using oiled umbrellas as protection from the rain as well. By the early 19th century, the design of the umbrella had improved and its use had become widespread. After Maria’s marriage, Fanny Price was overtaken by a heavy shower close to the Parsonage and sought shelter under an oak. When the Grants spotted her, they sent out a servant, but Fanny was reluctant to come in:

A civil servant she had withstood but when Dr Grant himself went out with an umbrella there was nothing to be done but to be very much ashamed and to get into the house as fast as possible; and to poor Miss Crawford, who had just been contemplating the dismal rain in a very desponding state of mind, sighing over the ruin of all her plans of exercise for that morning, and of every chance of seeing a single creature beyond themselves for the next twenty four hours, the sound of a little bustle at the front door and the sight of Miss Price dripping with wet in the vestibule was delightful. – Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

 

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