Strange Origins of the Jack-in-the-box
Charming Toys or Sinister Vessels?
For many the jack-in-the-box is known as an amusing and harmless children’s toy, but its origins often convey a much darker story. To the casual observer the object is usually regarded as consisting of a clown rigged to a coiled spring that pops out for an entertaining display. However original jack-in-the-boxes actually contained a very particular variety of joker, augustes. Whilst most clowns don a face of white makeup, often attired in pointy hats and ruffled collars, augustes have the large red noses and are clothed in oversized trousers, often with squirty flowers in their buttonholes. While the Jack character certainly looks like a comical figure, his purpose wasn’t always amusement.
In 12th century Norway Sir John Schorne was a cherished figure, his people declaring he possessed the powers of healing. The way he did this was supposedly due to the fact that he had captured the devil in a boot and was now exploiting the powers. There are many famous artworks that illustrate him holding a boot with a creature peeking out, leading many to believe this was the foundation for the jack-in-the-box.
One of the earliest documented cases of the traditional jack-in-the-box can be traced back to 15th century Germany. A clock maker crafted the gift for a local prince, using a wooden box with metal edges and a cranking handle. It played a spirited tune and held the traditional auguste exhibiting a leering smile. When other nobles caught sight of it, their desire of these toys for their own children began a trend that has lasted for centuries.
It has been expressed through folklore and legends that in 15th century France they were using the boxes for a very specific purpose. In French, a jack-in-the-box is called a diable en boîte, which translates to “devil in a box." It is said that these boxes were actually created to capture and hold demons or evil spirits. Many would fashion the boxes with elaborate engravings and amusing artwork to lure the demon’s interest. They would then employ the playful music and surprise opening of the lid to trap the demons. Their essence was then believed to become trapped in the Jack character, which was why they were originally made to look sinister with maniacal grins. The box was then to be hidden away where no one would ever be tempted to open it again, as doing so would cause the demon to be released back into our dimension.
Upon the 18th century the jack-in-the-box was no longer a toy just for royalty, making its presence at toy shops across the world. In the 1930’s jack-in-the-boxes began to be mass produced using lightweight stamped tin. Unfortunately, as time went on, the craftmanship of many jack-in-the-boxes further deteriorated. Nowadays being fashioned with shoddy mechanisms and constructed with printed cardboard in place of the original hand painted wood. Over the years characters other than augustes have made appearances within the boxes, such as giraffes, dragons, and even Santa Claus.
While the popularity of the jack-in-the-box as a children’s toy isn’t as prominent as it once was, it is still widely prevalent in pop culture. Cartoonists have utilized it in making fun of politicians for centuries, often using Jack as a caricature of the chosen politician. An American west fast-food restaurant, Jack in the Box, has not only taken it for a name, but also touts a white-faced mascot with a funny hat, whom is reminiscent of a jovial jester. Considering the jack-in-the-boxes darker roots, it is no surprise that it is commonly used in Halloween attractions such as haunted houses and amusement parks, whilst also making appearances in horror movies and literature.
Whether to simply admire the smirking pop out Jack character who has evolved throughout the centuries, or to consider the gloomier roots of this unique creation, the jack-in-the-box holds no shortage of inspirations for those who come across it. The whimsical creation has forged its way through time and is likely to stick around for generations to come.
About the author
M.R. Cameo generally writes horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and nonfiction, yet enjoys dabbling in different genres. She is currently doing freelance work as a writer, ghostwriter, copywriter, editor, and proofreader for various publications.