‘Piccadilly window’: meaning and origin

Piccadilly is the name of a street and of a circus (i.e., a rounded open space) in London, England.




This is the origin of the name Piccadilly according to Anthony David Mills in A Dictionary of London Place Names (Oxford University Press, 2001):

Piccadilly: This strange-looking street name has rather a bizarre origin. It seems that the name first appears as Pickadilly Hall in 1623, otherwise Pickadel Hall in 1636, as a (no doubt humorous) nickname for a house belonging to one Robert Baker, a successful tailor who had made his fortune from the sale of piccadills or piccadillies [note 1], a term used for various kinds of collars, highly fashionable at the time, for both men and women. The name of the hall was then transferred to the district (as in Pickadillie 1627, Pickadilla 1633) and to the street (as in Piccadilly Street 1673, Pickadilly 1682). Piccadilly Circus was created in 1819 at the junction with Regent Street which was then being built.

However, the English historian John Heneage Jesse (1809-1874) had refuted this origin in Literary and Historical Memorials of London (London: Richard Bentley, 1847)—but cf. note 2 & note 3:

According to the authority of almost every person who has written on the subject of the streets of London,—and I am sorry to disturb an opinion so long received,—Piccadilly derives its name from Peccadilla Hall, a repository for the sale of the fashionable ruffs for the neck, entitled piccadillies or turnovers, which were introduced in the reign of James the First. Barnabe Rice, in his “Honestie of the Age,” speaks of the “body makers that do swarm through all parts, both of London and about London.” “The body,” he says, “is still pampered up in the very dropsy of excess. He that some forty years since should have asked after Piccadilly, I wonder who would have understood him; or could have told what a Piccadilly had been, either fish or flesh.” In Ben Jonson’s “Devil is an Ass;” in Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Pilgrim;” and in Drayton’s satirical poem “The Moon Calf,” will be found more than one allusion to the fashionable “pickadel,” or “pickadilly.” It must be remarked, however, that the earliest of these productions (and they have all evidently reference to a ridiculous and ephemeral fashion of recent introduction) dates no further back than 1616 [note 2]; and, moreover, according to every evidence which I have been able to collect on the subject, the introduction of the “Piccadilly” was at least not of an earlier period than 1614 [note 2]. When we are able , therefore, to prove, that the word “Pickadilla” was in common use as far back as 1596 (our authority is Gerard’s “Herbal,” where the “small wild buglosse, “or ox-tongue, is spoken of as growing upon the banks of the dry ditches “about Pickadilla”) [note 3], we are compelled to disturb the old opinion that the present street derives its name from a fashionable article of dress which we find was not introduced till nearly twenty years after “Pickadilla” had become a familiar name, and which, moreover, was little likely to be sold in so rural a district as Piccadilly was in the days of James the First.
Let us be allowed to throw out one suggestion on the subject. Pickadilla House, which stood nearly on the site of the present Panton Square, was a fashionable place of amusement, apparently as far back as the reign of Elizabeth, and continued to be so nearly till the time of the Commonwealth. It has been the custom of all countries to confer an alluring name on places of amusement,—as for instance, we find the fashionable “Folly” floating on the Thames in the days of Charles the Second, and I cannot, therefore, but think, that Pickadilla House derived its name simply from the Spanish word peccadillo, literally meaning a venial fault, but which was intended, perhaps, to imply more than met the eye. Under all circumstances, it seems far more reasonable to suppose that the newly-invented ruff should have derived its name from being worn by the fair ladies and silken gallants who frequented Pickadilla House, than that a trifling article of dress should have given a name, first to the suburban emporium in which it is asserted to have been sold, and afterwards to one of the principal streets in Europe. Why, indeed, should a ruff have been called a pickadilla, unless from some such reason as we have mentioned? Or what lady is there who ever went into the fields to buy her attire? And, in the days of Elizabeth and James the First, Pickadilla House stood literally in the fields. The fact, however, that “Pickadilla” was a well-known spot, nearly twenty years before the introduction of the “pickadel,” or “turn-over,” at least puts one part of the argument at rest. We have already employed more time on the subject than perhaps it deserves, and must leave the vexata questio to be decided by some more ingenious antiquary.

Note 1: The common noun piccadill is a borrowing from Middle French picadille, also piccadille, of uncertain origin. This French noun, attested in 1589, was glossed as follows in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (London: Printed by Adam Islip, 1611), by the English lexicographer Randle Cotgrave:

Piccadilles: f. Piccadilles; the seuerall diuisions or peeces fastened together about the brimme of the collar of a doublet, &c.

Note 2: In fact, the common noun piccadill is first recorded in the following passage from North-ward Hoe (London: G. Eld, 1607), by the English playwrights Thomas Dekker (c1572-1632) and John Webster (c1580-c1625):

Dol. What fashion will make a woman haue the best bodie Taylor.
Tay. A short dutch wast with a round cathern-wheele fardingale: a close sleeue with a cartoose collour and a pickadell.

Note 3: In fact, it is not in the first edition (of 1597, not of 1596) but in the 1633 edition of The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes that the following passage occurs:

The little wilde Buglosse growes vpon the drie ditch bankes about Pickadilla, and almost euery where.




Now obsolete, the colloquial compound Piccadilly window denoted a monocle. This gave rise to the adjective Piccadilly-windowed, meaning monocled.
—Which, incidentally, is interesting because, etymologically, the noun window contains the noun eye.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of Piccadilly window and Piccadilly-windowed that I have found:

1-: From The Golden Dustman (1897), a song by the English composer George Le Brunn (George Frederick Brunn – 1863-1905) and by Eric Graham (dates not known), first performed by the English music-hall singer and comedian Gus Elen (Ernest Augustus Elen – 1862-1940)—as published in “Not B—y likely”, in World Film News (London, England) of April 1938:

But nah I’m goin’ to be a reg’lar toff,
A-ridin’ in my carriage and a pair,
A top ’at on my ’ead, and fevvers in my bed,
And call me-self the Dook o’ Barnit Fair;
As-ter-ry-my-can rahnd the bottom o’ my coat,
A Piccadilly winder in my eye;
Oh, fancy all the Dustmen a-shoutin’ in my yer.
“Leave us in yer will before yer die.

2-: From the column Chit-Chat, published in the Evening Telegraph and Star (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Monday 13th September 1897:


The writer on British customs in the “London American” is sceptical as to the anticipated loss of custom to publicans if the barmaid disappeared. “At one time,” he says, “it was quite the thing to have a charming young lady presiding in the cigar divan. It was thought that feminine charms would attract custom. They did; but what was the result? A few cuff-and-collar Piccadilly-windowed Johnnies spooning with the girl behind the counter would effectively monopolise a shop, to the discomfort of legitimate customers. Those legitimate customers soon found that it saved time and temper to purchase where men only were employed, with the result that a lady tobacconist is now something of a rarity. Abolish the barmaid to-morrow, with her following of brainless things that buy her gloves and flowers, and the publican will get the benefit of the trade of those who cannot wait ten minutes to be served whilst Maudie strokes Algy’s hand and tells him he is a darling.

3-: From the review of an entertainment given at Hull’s Palace Theatre, published in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire, England) of Tuesday 7th December 1897:

After Gus Elen’s first song the audience roused itself, and encores were demanded. In the end there was something like a furore. This artist left the stage as “The Duke of Leicester Square, with a Piccadilly window in his eye,” full of the honours of the night.

4-: From the review of an entertainment given at the Foresters’, published in The London Music Halls, in The Era (London, England) of Saturday 22nd January 1898:

It is some years since we heard Mr John Read, who for a period of years held the positions of chairman and assistant stage-manager at (old) Collins’s. His style, we may at once state, is as telling as ever, and his subjects as well chosen. In his first selection, “Mother’s favourite boy,” there is grim humour in the fate of the darling who eventually gets on to the everlasting staircase at Wormwood Scrubbs; and, in his second, the swell with a Piccadilly window in his eye comes in for severe sarcasm. Mr Read is exceptionally well received, and his choruses are taken up with great unanimity in all parts of the hall.

5-: From the column Gossip, published in the Express and Star (Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England) of Wednesday 21st September 1898:

Mr. Chamberlain’s eye-glass, it appears, is “hereditary, not necessary.” Are we to understand that the scions of the house of Chamberlain are born with the “little Piccadilly window” in one eye?
This would go one better than Lieutenant Good, who, if we remember rightly, was washed through a mountain on a subterranean stream and emerged with the monocle in situ.

The compound Piccadilly window came to be used in American English—as in the following from the San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California, USA) of Thursday 19th March 1914:

Monocle Craze Started by Girl
Honest, They Wear ’Em In School
Miss Frances Michael back of the monocle which has upset the Oakland High School.

Principal of Oakland High Ignores Fad Which Grows and Redraws Social Lines.

A craze to wear black-rimmed monocles—a fashion credited to the British by Americans and vice versa—started by Frances Michael, one of the students, has produced a curious situation in the Oakland High School.
When Miss Michael first appeared in class a few days ago wearing one of the beribboned “Piccadilly Windows” the gravity of the class was upset and other students paid far more attention to her grotesque gestures as she alternately fixed the monocle in her eye and then dropped it than they did to their recitations.
During the noon recess a dozen other members of the class visited jewelry stores and reappeared in the afternoon decorated like Frances Michael. Among these were Clara Rounsevell, Mary Beebe and Alice Lee.
Principal Charles E. Keyes, when the matter was brought to his attention, decided that it would be better to take no action, thinking that the fad would die naturally and quickly. But instead of that the craze spread, and now the ever-present social lines in a high school are being drawn more closely through the introduction of the craze.
Just what action Keyes will take, if any, he refuses to say. In the meantime the “monstrous monocle” has usurped the dignity of the classrooms.

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