The new and exquisitely beautiful theatre of Drury-lane has the peculiar contrivance of an iron-curtain to secure the audience from all danger, in case of fire on the stage. Miss Farren, in the occasional epilogue, delivered on opening this new theatre, pleasantly informs the spectators that, should flames burst out in the part appropriated to the representation, they may comfort themselves with thinking that nothing can be burnt but the scenery and the actors. [The Monthly Review, June 1794]
From 1819 in the figurative sense "impenetrable barrier." In reference to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, famously coined by Winston Churchill March 5, 1946, in speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, but it had been used earlier in this context (for example by U.S. bureaucrat Allen W. Dulles at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, Dec. 3, 1945). The phrase had been used in the sense of "barrier at the edge of the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union" from 1920. During World War II, Goebbels used it in German (ein eiserner Vorhang) in the same sense. But its popular use in the U.S. dates from Churchill's speech.