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Squashed between Priscian and Priscillian in Merriam-Webster Online, there's a peculiar entry, priscilla. It's not just a Biblical name, it appears, but also some sort of curtain.

priscilla: [noun - pris·​cil·​la - prə̇ˈsilə]
[plural-s - sometimes capitalized]
one of a pair of ruffled curtains with short ruffled valance attached and with tiebacks of the same material

One website, Home Decor Bliss, seems particularly taken with the style; it expands on this definition as it waxes lyrical:

Priscilla curtains are a style of extra-wide curtain with a frilly, romantic look particularly suited to rustic, French, shabby chic, and country-style decor. Typically white and made from a lacy or sheer material, they have a ruffle that runs along the inner edge and bottom of the curtain. They are hung on a double curtain rod to create an overlap on the top half and are then bound with curtain tiebacks to create a flounced silhouette.

Back to the dictionary, M-W gives us a vague 'explanation' of the origin:

from Priscilla, a feminine name

Is a more detailed etymology available? It may just be a question of looking in a more thorough publication, but I haven't found anything else online and am at a bit of a loss. It doesn't even seem to be an entry in any other major dictionary, though I did find it in a glossary of interior design terms.

Was there some lady named Priscilla who invented them? That seems the likeliest story, but I can't confirm this as there's very little information on the origin of the curtains themselves. It looks like they go back to the early 20th-century, but still, not enough for me to be certain.

Perhaps this is relevant, perhaps not, but this periodical refers to such curtains both as "priscilla curtains" and as "priscilla style curtains". Not completely sure if that's helpful, but it does show some early variation in spelling.


(Also, useless detail, priscilla had its 15 minutes/few seconds of fame when it was spelled during the 2005 Scripps National Spelling Bee.)

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  • Just for reference, here’s a 1904 usage for you: House Beautiful, Volume 17 Jun 17, 2023 at 0:08
  • @TinfoilHat - thanks. Also, Google Books says it's actually from 1887. Jun 17, 2023 at 0:28
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    1887 is the periodical start date. The volume that priscilla curtain appears in is 1904. Jun 17, 2023 at 0:47
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    As long as we seem to be shooting from the hip around here... How about Priscilla, the veiled lady (veil, curtain, get it?) from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance? Jun 17, 2023 at 2:50

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The term "Priscilla curtains" may have possibly originated from the character Priscilla Alden in the classic American novel Priscilla and Alden: The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1874. The character Priscilla Alden was depicted as a demure and modest woman, and the style of curtains that came to be known as Priscilla curtains was considered to reflect her gentle and feminine nature.

However, the only hint of proof that this is true which I could find is this advert in this magazine called Old House Interiors (a national architectural magazine covering period-inspired design 1700–1950. This particular issue is from the year 1999):

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The ad reads:

Priscilla Lives = Are they called “Priscilla curtains” because they're reminiscent of the woman who said, “Speak for yourself, John Alden”? Wide ruffle curtains and a matching shade from Country Curtains come in bleached or unbleached white muslin, from 30" to 90" long.

Yet, the specific origin or documented evidence of this association of Priscilla Alden with the Priscilla curtains is not readily available, because it may have developed over time through cultural references, general perception, and popular usage.

Looking at the origin of these curtains might shed more light on how the name was connected to them:

Until the mid-18th century, window covers were only found in the bedrooms of the rich and rarely in other rooms. Priscilla curtains came into fashion during the Colonial Revival. At first, they were only in luxurious homes.

They initially were used to adorn the windows of parlor rooms, but at the beginning of the 19th century, even middle-class families were dressing their windows in curtains, including Priscilla. (Homebliss)

Old-House Journals claims that Priscilla curtains appeared as part of the Colonial Revival style.

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  • You state that “The term ‘Priscilla curtains’ is believed to have originated from the character Priscilla Alden...” What is your source for this? Jun 16, 2023 at 22:58
  • It is "believed" because it is not documented, at least not online. Basically, there is no source that clearly states the origin of the term. As this ad shows by asking a rhetorical question, it is in fact not sure that the term comes from this particular Priscilla. However, this "hint" intuitively shows that the hypothesis is not excluded either.
    – fev
    Jun 16, 2023 at 23:01
  • By whom is it believed? Are you just referencing this ad? Jun 16, 2023 at 23:04
  • Nice find in terms of catching a thread, though it seems a little apocryphal. +1, nevertheless. Jun 16, 2023 at 23:56
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One sign is from -illa, a diminutive suffix in Latin. Pr- hints at a prefix of pre or per. That asks what is the root, points to prisc of some kind, and if so, does the sc correspond to the meaning of change or grow (cresco) ? Often. To be determined in this case. It would be remiss not to note how this could break your head, grammatically*.

So far we have the root meaning old fashioned incorporating the pre, and the little feminine ending.

Anyone can pick any name to describe a style. If the curtains looked prissy, this would be a somewhat finer name for them.

Etymonline gives:

Priscilla

fem. proper name, from Latin, fem. of Priscillus, diminutive of Priscus (fem. Prisca), from priscus "antique, ancient, of old; old-fashioned, primitive, venerable," from *pris-ko-, adjective from *pris-, *pri "before," probably from PIE root *per- (1) "forward," hence "in front of, before, first."

Here's more information on Priscillian in the fourth century.

The ascetic movement Priscillianism is named after him, and continued in Hispania and Gaul until the late 6th century.


*Late Latin Priscianus, name of the celebrated Roman grammarian (c. 500-530); commonly in the phrase break Priscian's head (1520s) "violate rules of grammar" (Latin diminuere Prisciani caput).

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    Thanks for answering, but I'm a little confused. What's your theory? Latin pre- + diminutive -illa? Or 'curtains are prissy,' hence 'priscilla curtains'? (Also, I'm not that concerned with Priscillian's meaning/origin) Jun 16, 2023 at 23:58
  • If they look old fashioned and that's what a designer is going for, "simple and frilly" (?) according to one home decor ad, then they can pick any name they like to make it sound good. I see the same origins. The history of curtains is maybe not all the same as Venetian blinds.
    – livresque
    Jun 17, 2023 at 0:02

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