In Reply to: Left on the shelf posted by ESC on March 18, 2009 at 18:14:
: : : I work in a museum and am trying to find the origin of the phrase "left on the shelf". Any clues?
: : It's a natural metaphor from everyday life. Just as, when goods are selling rapidly we can say they are "flying off the shelves", when something or someone isn't in demand, and not likely to be, we say that they are "on the shelf". (It's not only spinsters that can be on the shelf: a plan or policy can also be put on the shelf, and so can an official or a general.) (VSD)
: I don't have a date. Put on the shelf -- To put aside as of no further use. Used to describe people, projects, objects including "A single woman beyond the average age of marriage is said to be on the shelf." "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" revised by John Ayto (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 2005, Seventeenth Edition). Page 1260. Another reference said it's prison slang for being in solitary confinement -- mirroring society's use of the phrase for "out of circulation."
on the shelf -- 19th century, transported. Mid-19C in pawn (laid up in lavender). Mid-19thC+, put on one side for unspecified future use. Mid-19thC+ of a woman, unmarried and worried about it, feeling she has been "put to one side." Late 19thC, dead. 20thC, U.S. underworld, in solitary confinement. "Cassell's Dictionary of Slang" by Jonathon Green (Wellington House, London, 1998). Page 877.