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What is a Parasol?

A parasol implies protection from the sun rather than rain.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 July 2014
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A parasol is a device designed to keep the user out of the sunlight, and variations on it have been used for thousands of years, especially in hot countries. The term “umbrella” is also technically correct for a parasol, although in common usage a parasol has come to imply protection from sun, while an umbrella shelters someone from rain. Both devices are built along a similar principle, with a long central shaft that holds supporting spokes, which are covered with a network of material that can be easily collapsed for portability.

The term “parasol” comes from the Latin para for shelter or shield and sol, which means sun. Archaeological evidence indicates that parasols have been around for thousands of years in locations ranging from Ancient Egypt to China, and that the basic design may have been developed simultaneously in several areas. Parasols pop up in bas reliefs, paintings, and writings in places like Ancient Greece and Rome, China, Mesoamerica, the Middle East, and North Africa. In many instances, the parasol was considered a status symbol, and was carried for a high ranking member of society by someone else.

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Depending on the culture, the parasol is often associated with women: men who used parasols were sometimes considered to be effeminate or otherwise suspect. In both Ancient Greece and Rome, women used parasols exclusively, and this tradition has carried on into many European cultures including Victorian England, where upper class women carried parasols to keep their skin pale to differentiate themselves from field laborers.

A number of materials can be used to make a parasol, including paper, silk, cotton, linen, canvas, and plastic. The materials used depend on the function of the parasol, the culture, and the desired appearance. Hand painted silk and paper tend to be associated with Asian parasols, which are often highly delicate and will not survive in wet conditions or heavy wind. More durable parasols are made from plastic and canvas, and can hold up to moisture much better.

The parasol occurs in a number of modern incarnations including the traditional hand held variety. Many parasols are designed to be mounted to tables or planted in the sand, providing hands free shade to a number of people along with food and drink. A more elaborate parasol might better be classified as an awning or shade structure, especially as it becomes more tent-like, but as long as it retains the basic collapsible design, it is safe to call a shade structure a parasol. The range of materials, sizes, and designs means that parasols are available seasonally at a variety of costs.

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