History Of The Curfew: Etymology, Brief History, And How It Involved Fire

By | June 1, 2020

test article image
British paratroopers enforce curfew in Tel Aviv after King David Hotel bombing, July 1946. (Hans Pinn/Wikimedia Commons)

In response to the recent civil unrest in many American cities, many mayors are enacting emergency curfews in their communities. Of course, we know that emergency curfews are different from the 10:00 P.M. curfew your mom gave you when you were a teenager or the permanent juvenile curfews that some cities and towns have established to keep delinquents off the streets at night. Still, when we think of the word "curfew," we think of some sort of restriction that prohibits people from leaving their home during specific times. But what is the history of curfews?

test article image
"Curfew" means "to cover your fire." (Fir0002/Wikimedia Commons)

Fiery Origins

You may be surprised to learn that the origins of the word "curfew" have nothing to do with preventing people from being outside their homes at night. It was actually a warning to put out any fires you may have set during the more exciting hours of the day. Dating back as far as the 14th century, most communities sounded an evening bell, called a curfew bell, that reminded residents to cover their hearth fires for the night to reduce the risk of a house fire. In those days, houses were constructed mostly of wood and built in close proximity to each other, and firefighting apparatus like hydrants, hoses, and firetrucks were nonexistent, so an unattended fire could demolish several houses before it settled itself down to sleep. That's why the word "curfew" is a combination of the French words coverier, meaning "to cover," and feu, or "fire." "Curfew" literally means the time to cover your fire.