By Eleanor Breen / Project Manager, Archaeological Collections Online
It’s amazing how much can be said about a single artifact! In two earlier blog posts, we discussed the disputed identification of the mystery artifact and how we came to the conclusion that it would have served as one of many small anchors that attached the fabric cover to the frame of an umbrella or parasol.
Now that the artifact is properly indentified, what does it mean to excavate an umbrella tip or other part on an archaeological site? To answer this question, we did a little historical research on umbrellas, which were also called sunshades and parasols. Umbrellas appear to have been in use in China, Italy, and elsewhere prior to the seventeenth century, but they do not become part of English apparel until the seventeenth century. Umbrellas protected their users from rain and sun.
A search through transcribed probate inventories reveals that the earliest recorded umbrella in York County (encompassing Williamsburg, Virginia) was 1729. However, in York County at least, umbrellas were not particularly common, as they are only recorded six times between 1729 and 1802.
Another database drawn from probate inventories in Virginia and Maryland between 1740 and 1810 offers additional evidence of the infrequent use (or at least infrequent recording) of umbrellas during this period (chart 1). The first recorded umbrella is 1760, 20 years after the first recorded probate in the database. In 5 year increments, the highest number of umbrellas recorded was only 4. Though the evidence is slim, these data suggest that umbrellas were most popular in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The South Grove parasol tip was excavated from the 1775-1800 phase.
Interestingly, the probate of Thomas Addison, recorded in 1775, lists “An Umbrella.” This is the same individual who resided at Oxon Hill Manor, discussed in our last blog post on parasols, where the archaeologists uncovered two parasol tips!
Here at Mount Vernon, Lawrence Washington’s inventory of 1753 does not indicate that he owned an umbrella. The first and only reference written by George Washington about an umbrella comes in 1787 when he writes from Philadelphia, “When you send the two Coats wrote for in my last—accompany them with my Umbrella—I have a New one in my Study.” An umbrella that came up at auction suggests that Washington owned a sunshade that he carried with him while riding his horse. This is corroborated by George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson, who mentioned the fact that Washington used an umbrella on rides about the plantation. Custis purportedly gave this umbrella to General Lafayette in the 1820s.
According to the available archaeological and documentary evidence from eighteenth-century Virginia and Maryland, it seems that umbrellas were not widely purchased. They may have been symbols of gentility and status (in addition to serving a much-needed function) due to their limited availability and cost. This is very different from how we think of umbrellas today — I am always misplacing the few cheap ones that I own!