Shades of the past seen in parasol exhibit

August 16, 1998

Parasol ExhibitBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer

photo: MIKE CRUPI / staff photographer [enlarge]

WAYNESBORO. Pa. - Unlike today, with the popularity of sunbathing and tanning salons, women in the 19th century went to great lengths to avoid the sun and keep their skin as smooth and white as possible.

Parasols are rarely seen these days. They show up at estate auctions, attics, antique shops or, as in the case of Waynesboro for the next month or so, in a museum.

"Sunshades & Rainy Day Accessories - Umbrellas and Parasols," the title of a special exhibit under way at Renfrew Museum and Park, is a static display of more than three dozen parasols and umbrellas dating from the Civil War era through the 1930s.


It was put together by Shirley Baker, director of visitor services at Renfrew from the loan of several private collections. Baker has one of her own parasols in the exhibit.

Most date from the Victorian era and are exquisite in their decoration. Hanging from the walls in the upstairs gallery or poised in stands are umbrellas and parasols with handles of gold, silver, carved ivory, cloisonne and exotic woods. Some have handles inlaid with precious stones and mother-of-pearl.

They can reach prices of $1,000 or more, Baker said.

Baker did enough research on umbrellas and parasols to write a 5 1/2-page history. She gives it to volunteers who man the gallery so they can speak with authority to visitors.

Baker said most Victorian women carried a parasol. Those who could afford it had one for every wardrobe change.

Parasols were carried to protect a woman's fair complexion from the sun. To a lesser degree it became part of the dress of the day, a status symbol.

It's rare to see a photograph or painting of a Gibson Girl-era woman without a parasol over her head or folded by her side.

Parasols changed with fashion. New ones were bought or, if a woman were cost-conscious, an existing one was covered with new fabric, Baker said.

The same was true of umbrellas. They, too, were recovered when the fabric wore out, unlike today's throwaway philosophy.

"They were generational, handed down from father to son," Baker said.

According to Baker, fashion among the Victorians also dictated that a lady never be caught in the rain. Umbrellas were held by men to walk women from the front door to the carriage. Since they were more utilitarian than decorative, umbrellas have changed little over the years.

Exhibits at the gallery change three to four times a year, Baker said. She doesn't know what will replace the parasol exhibit when it closes in mid- to late September.

Entrance to the gallery is included with the regular museum fee of $3 for adults, $2.50 for seniors and $1.50 for children. The museum is open Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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