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.