18th Century Parasols

Last updated: Jan 5, 2024

The Annals of Philadelphia provides a description of the use of parasols and umbrellas in the 18th century:

In Mrs. Shoemaker’s time, above named [having died in 1825 at the age of 95], they had no knowledge of umbrellas to keep off rain, but she had seen some few use quitasols — an article as small as present parasols. They were netirely to keep off rain from ladies. They were of oiled muslin, and were of various colours, from India by way of England. They must, however, have been but rare, as they never appear in any advertisements. Their name is derived from the Spanish.

Doctor Chanceller and the Rev. Mr. Duché were the first persons in Philadelphia who were ever seen to wear umbrellas to keep off the rain. They were of oiled linen, very coarse and clumsy, with ratan sticks. Before their time, some doctors and ministers used an oiled linen cape hooked round their shoulders, looking not unlike the big coat-capes now in use, and the ncalled a roquelaue. It was only used for severe storms.

About the year 1771, the first efforts were made in Philadelphia to introduce the use of umbrellas in summer as a defence from the sun. They were then scouted in the public Gazettes as a ridiculous effeminacy. On the other hand, the physicians recommended them to keep off vertigoes, epilepsies, sore eyes, fevers, &c. Finally, as the doctors were their chief patrons, Doctor Chanceller and Doctor Morgan, with the Rev. Parson Duché, were the first persons who had the hardihood to be so singular as to wear umbrellas in sunshine. Mr. Bingham, when he returned from the West Indies, where he had amassed a great fortune in the Revolution, appeared abroad in the streets attended by a mulatto boy bearing his umbrella. But his example did not take, and he desisted from its use.

Extant parasols and umbrellas from the 18th century

  • Met C.I.56.8, France, c. 1675-1725
  • Met C.I.55.43.37, Italy, early 18th century
  • MFA 50.3131, America; “Green damask with large-scale floral design; cut scalloped edge; faded on top; straight black wooden handle with knob at end; ivory knob on top; said to have been made from Hannah Emerson’s wedding dress, about 1720.”
  • MFA 50.3204, green cotton parasol with “straight wooden handle with round knob at end; metal tip,” America, late 18th century
  • Rijksmuseum BK-1967-92, an umbrella, c. 1770-1780
  • An elegant parasol of yellow silk with a woven blue border, c. 1785
  • Met 2009.300.2581, America, c. 1790; “Of particular interest are the whalebone rather than metal ribs and the hand-made bone or ivory ribs which vary in shape.”
  • A parasol of silk taffeta with an ivory handle, end of the 18th century
  • Augusta 8.4836.187.157, blue umbrella & case, c. 1790-1810; “Umbrella with dark blue-green cotton cover, striped with beige around edges, ivory or bone points, metal framing, baleen canopy ribs, tortoise colored crooked handle, possibly horn, brass cylindrical slide and tip, stenciled green and tan cotton drawstring case”
  • MFA 99.664.99, possibly made in England, used in Lexington, Massachusetts, late 18th or early 19th century; “Green silk umbrella, brass ferule with ring, ten whale bone ribs with brass tips, wooden stick with turned handle, ‘AR’ carved in handle.
  • Met 46.29a–c, Italy, 18th or 19th century

Depictions of parasols