For most people, the term iron curtain conjures up images of the Cold War as it was frequently used to describe the notional barrier dividing the capitalist states of Europe (and the West in general) and the communist countries of the Eastern bloc.
Originally, however, the term had little to do with political ideologies. In fact the term was first used in the 18th century to describe a safety device for theaters. In an article in the Morning Post, published in 1794, the author observed that “the preventions used against fire in this theatre are singular and ingenious; all the wood-work is covered with thin plates of iron, and there is in addition an iron curtain, which extends to the walls, and is so calculated as completely to prevent the flames spreading to the front of the House, though the scenes were to catch fire”. Such curtains are still in use today for fire protection reasons.
In an extended sense the iron curtain was used for the first time back in 1819 in reference to a magical stop to a plague of malaria which was hitting the British army in India. It happened all of a sudden, “as if an iron curtain had dropped” between the disease and the soldiers, and “the deaths diminished”.
It was as early as 1920 that the word was used in print to describe a divide between communist Russia and the rest of Europe. Ethel Snowden was a woman rights activist who went to Russia. After a welcome by the local unions in Moscow she wrote “we were behind the iron curtain at last”. In 1945, at the end of the Second World War the phase was used frequently by politicians, including Winston Churchill. But the word came into common use only in 1946 in a famous speech by Churchill who dramatically announced the truth that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent”. There was a metaphorical and physical barrier between political and economic systems.
Today, in a post-Cold War world the term has somewhat lost its social and historical relevance. However, with the new tensions in East and West relations it remains to be seen what the future holds for the iron curtain.