The rise of Michelle happened before the Beatles recorded their hit single. But this name owes her popularity to a song.

Thanks to Photoquilty for suggesting Chelsea as Name of the Day.

King Offa of Mercia put Chelsea on the map in the 700s, when he convened the Synod of Chelsea, summoning papal officials to England. Back then, Chelsea was a ways outside of London. Today it is part of the city itself.

Chelsea is a typical descriptive place name: a combination of the Anglo-Saxon cealc – chalk – or possibly cele – cold and the word for harbor or wharf. (The River Thames forms the area’s southern border.)

For much of Chelsea’s history it was a stylish place to call home. The future Queen Elizabeth I spent some years in residence. By the Victorian era, Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk had become a favored residence for writers and artists. George Eliot, Dante Rossetti, Hilaire Beloc and Sylvia Pankhurst all claimed the address, as well as both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Extend the Who’s Who list to all of Chelsea, and you’ll include Francis Bacon, Mark Twain and Bram Stoker, Judy Garland and Dirk Bogarde, Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Marley.

It’s not just artists, either. Chelsea’s Sloane Square inspired the nickname Sloane Ranger – think Lady Diana Spencer in her pre-royal days, almost a British equivalent of the American preppy. The label has been applied to many a well-born young woman, including another possible princess, Kate Middleton.

There’s more to the story, but let’s leave London for New York. British Major Thomas Clark named his Manhattan home Chelsea in the 1700s. His grandson, Clement C. Moore, wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas in the house. Chelsea later became the name of the entire neighborhood.

Just like the London original, this second Chelsea became a hub for all things creative. Mary Pickford filmed early movies there. The Honeymooners was made at Chelsea Studios. The Chelsea Hotel served as home base for Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. Nancy Spungen died there. Leonard Cohen wrote a song about it. (Elvis Costello’s single was about the London ‘hood.) Jasper Johns, Arthur C. Clarke and Patti Smith have all stayed there. You can, too – it’s still an operating hotel.

In 1968, Joni Mitchell recorded “Chelsea Morning” – about the neighborhood, not the hotel. Judy Collins covered the song a few months later. And that was it – after centuries on the map and nearly as long as a cultural force, Chelsea became a popular given name.

In 1969, Chelsea debuted in the US rankings at #706. By 1981, she stood at #408. That same year, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda starred in On Golden Pond. Jane Fonda played their estranged daughter – Chelsea.

By 1982, the name had leapt to #169. Chelsea eventually peaked at #15 in 1992. Variants like Chelsey, Chelsie, Chelsi, Chelsy and Kelsea were all in use through the 1990s.

The 90s really were Chelsea’s decade, as first daughter Chelsea Clinton moved into the White House. It’s said that Bill and Hillary named their only child after the Judy Collins version of the song.

Today, the neighborhoods may still be fashionable, but as a name, Chelsea is on the decline. If you’re looking for a moniker that evokes the same style today, you might settle on one mentioned a few paragraphs above: Sloane.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. Bewildertrix, that’s what I’ve heard Photoquilty say about Brooklyn! (Great place to be from, but a baby name? Really?)

    As for Sloane, she’s a guilty pleasure of mine. But I was in London all of once, for 36 hours. So when I hear Sloane Square I think of Morrissey’s “Hairdresser on Fire.” Not exactly inspiration for a child’s name, but I’m a sucker for Morrissey’s voice.

    Sarah, I’m not sure if I’ve heard Chelsea Dagger. I grabbed a bunch of Fratellis stuff off iTunes a while back, though … I’ll have to dig around and give it a listen.

    There’s a fabulous – and very cool – Chelsea who works in Clio’s child center. So that ups the name for me, but not enough to use it. But I do find myself wondering if it would be cool to spend a night in the Chelsea Hotel … or if I’d feel tragically uncool the whole time …

  2. It doesn’t have a good rep here in NZ. I’ve heard the same thing from people in the UK and have seen it called ‘chavvy’ many times. I know that Prince Harry’s on/off again girlfriend, Chelsy Davy has been given a ribbing about her name in the press before but perhaps that’s more the spelling?

    I find it a bit of an aspirational place name that is, I doubt anyone living in the affluent Chelsea area of London would give their daughter the name. Well, I’d hope not. It ranks #176 for England. Of course there’s lots of spelling variations, Chelsey being quite popular and plenty of hyphenated versions for 2008 too.

    I’m still seeing it pop up in Aussie BAs weekly.

    I too find it sugary sweet and that’s more to do with this 😉 It’s the only sugar I use. I’m sure that’s the same for many Kiwis.

    As for Sloane. I find it the most grimy and unpleasant name I’ve ever heard. Well, on par with Ancient Greek mythological Gorgo and Spermo really. Stats say there were two little Sloanes born in England for 2008. I ask why?

  3. Sloane is dyamite! Just remembered I once wrote a poem about/entitled Murray Hill. Haha. Alas, I am no Joni Mitchell, and Murray will probably never be cool.

  4. I have never liked Chelsea. It sounds scratchy and cutsey to my ears. I cannot really see it on an old woman. It feels forever youthful.

  5. I’m not inspired by Chelsea. It seems very 90s due to Ms. Clinton and otherwise seems like it’s a “trying too hard” moniker. Sloane does too (and that one even has a negative sounding connotation for me – saying someone is ‘sloaney’ is not a compliment, as I’ve heard it). I’ve known a few Chelseas (all younger than me) and the name wears just fine, but it’s definitely not one I’d pick for my kid.

  6. Never been especially fond of this name, but I do rather like the sound of it. For some odd reason I keep thinking of a cocker spaniel when I say the name. Ah well!

  7. I kind of hate it. I think it sounds unattractive, fluffy, dated and has a kreatyv sound. A few cool Chelseas haven’t helped me to like this name.

  8. I was never overly fond of Chelsea (It only reminded me of Bill Clinton’s daughter) until I heard The Fratellis song ‘Chelsea Dagger’. Now I’m very fond of it.

  9. My first experience with Chelsea was on my dad’s cousin’s wife’s daughter-from-her-first-marriage in the 1980s, so I guess she was born around 1976 or ’75. I loved it! But I’e always wondered how this place name found its way onto girls. I was curious about the connection with Kelsey (like Grammer, he of Frasier fame) which would seem to have come before the feminine Chelsea. Was there an earlier Kelsey for males, or were Grammer’s parents terribly avant garde? If there was an earlier Kelsey boy name, it would be a moot point now, since the girls have it these days (like everything else). 😉

    I still find Chelsea attractive. Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me, maybe it’s because of the girl I knew as a child, who was older and more intriguing than the other kids I knew, maybe it’s just the way the name sounds. Regardless, I’m not in the habit of using place names on people, so it’s not going to happen. (Okay, Sabrina is kind of a place name, but not really – and I haven’t used it…yet).

    Thanks for posting, Abby!

  10. I first came across Chelsea as a person’s name when my cousin chose it for her daughter — and yes, she picked it in the peak year of 1992. When Chelsea’s best friend, Kendra, was four she was given the privilege of selecting a name for her new baby sister. The name she chose was Kelsey Katrina, in honour of my cousin Chelsea Katrina. Chelsea, Kendra, Courtney (Chelsea’s sister), and Kelsey are all still best friends.

    By now, the name seems so firmly embedded in the ’90s that I was quite surprised to find out that friends of my sister selected “Chelsey” for their infant daughter.