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Q From Brian Fawcett: In the light of all the campaigning in an American election year, I mentioned the term soapbox and got a few strange looks from people who had never heard the term. I refer to politicians using a platform or box to speak or preach. Can you find any other history to the use of soapbox or perhaps soapboxing?

A Useful things, soapboxes. In quantity, bars of soap are rather weighty and they used to be packed in stout wooden boxes or crates for transport. Once emptied, the boxes were in demand. The indigent turned them into improvised furniture; children loved to put old pram wheels on them and make them into mini-racing cars, so they could run soap-box derbies. They were also just the ticket to stand on so you could be seen more easily when haranguing an audience in the street.

The most recent literal example I can think of is the soapbox, so-called, that the British prime minister John Major spoke from in the 1992 general election. My journalistic contacts say it first appeared in Cheltenham on 30 March 1992; it was certainly a wooden box from a supermarket, but as nobody packed soap in wooden boxes even then, it was instead a more flimsy orange box or crate (at least that’s what it looks like in the news photographs, with black gaffer tape wound round it to make sure it didn’t fall apart and precipitate the PM into the crowd). John Major called it a soapbox to reinforce the idea he was conducting a traditional meet-the-people campaign — on the stump, as Americans say, in reference to another kind of wooden platform.

There’s no way of knowing when public speakers first turned to the soap box or exactly when it became the term for a certain kind of strident, in-your-face public oratory, the sort long famous at Speakers’ Corner in London or which Fannie Hurst wrote about in her Gaslight Sonatas in 1918: “It is the pulpit of the reformer and the housetop of the fanatic, this soapbox. From it the voice to the city is often a pious one, [or] impious one, and almost always a raucous one.” An early literal reference appeared in March 1896 in the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel of Indiana: “Then the band divided and scattered throughout the town, distributing their pamphlets and occasionally mounting a soapbox or a barrel to make a speech.” But I suspect it goes back a lot further.

The earliest example of the term used figuratively I can find is in the report of the National Convention of the Socialist Party of America in 1904, which referred to the party’s soap-box orators. Only three years later, Jack London wrote in The Road, his account of his hoboing experiences of 1894, “I get up on a soap-box to trot out the particular economic bees that buzz in my bonnet.”

The verb is also known, as is soap-boxer, both from early in the twentieth century.

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Page created 28 Jun 2008