I’ve written previously about the first use of the word “property” in the theatrical sense. But what about the shortened form of the word; when were they first called “props”?
The Oxford English Dictionary places its earliest written appearance in 1865, in a book called The slang dictionary; or, The vulgar words, street phrases, and “fast” expressions of high and low society. Many with their etymology, and a few with their history traced. It says simply,
Props, stage properties. Theatrical
Obviously, it would have been in common verbal usage before this. I wonder if the dictionary considers “props” a fast expression of high or low society. Looking at the frequency of its appearance in writing, it would appear the word was well-accepted by the mid-1880s.
We get a much more comprehensive definition in the Otago Witness (a New Zealand newspaper) in 1886. It also describes “plots” as they are used at the time.
“Props,” the abbreviation in use for “properties,” is a very important term. Everything stored at the theatre for use on the stage is a “prop”; these are the manager’s props. The actor’s props are the articles of clothing which he has to provide for himself. These vary according to the status of the company; managers of repute providing everything except tights and a few other articles, while needy managers like their company to have a “wardrobe” of their own. “Plot” is used with a somewhat peculiar significance. There are a number of “plots” to every play. Thus the “scene plot” is a list of the various scenes. The “flyman’s plot” is a list of the articles required by the flyman, or man in the “flies.” There is similarly a “gasman’s plot.” The “property plot” includes all properties used in the piece, and the prompter is responsible for their all being to hand at the proper time. The least important of the prompter’s duties, indeed, is to prompt.
Property plots themselves have been referenced much earlier (as early as 1847), and the idea of drawing up a bill of all props for a show has been seen as far back as Shakespeare.