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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, March 31, 2014

Historical Tidbit: The (Somewhat Creepy) History of the Jack-in-the-Box

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Did you know...

That the jack-in-the-box has its origins in the Middle Ages?

So at my writer's group last week, there was a story that contained a jack-in-the-box element. It actually wasn't a creepy story, but a literary one.

Anyway, at some point, the question was raised, "When were jack-in-the-boxes first sold?" So we, being children of the internet age, looked it up. I expected the answer to be somewhere around the 1930s. Oh how wrong I was!

The origin of the jack-in-the-box dates back to the 14th century, and a man named Sir John Schorne. He lived in Buckinghamshire, England, and a was great leader and healer in his small village. Folklore says he captured a devil in a boot, and he's often pictured holding the boot with the devil popping out of it. 

This is the origin of this tenacious children's toy.

First of all, CREEPY! No matter how much you expect the jack to pop out, it still scares you, right? Perhaps that's because the jack is actually a symbol of the devil! *shivers*

That led me to another line of thinking. One of the most prevalent and violently phobic fears amongst us mere mortals is that of clowns. I've always wondered what it is about them that scares us so. 

(Don't get me wrong. I don't disagree with their creepiness. I've never experienced the phobia myself--even had a toy clown named Bilbo, of all things, as child--but I totally get why others think they're scary.)

I always figured it must have something to do with the fact that they wear masks, or their false happiness that just freaks us out, but I think there's a connection here. 

The jack is a symbol of a devil named Jack (in much the same way the jack-o-lanterns of Halloween are) and somewhere that got crossed with clown lore, which suggests the clown is also a symbol of the devil. Could this be why such a large portion of the population suffers from a phobia of them (coulrophobia)? 

Research shows that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some human observers. (Source)

And classically, this is exactly what a devil does. He tries hard to mimic human or god-like behavior, but can't ever quite do it. 

Two boys playing with a Jack-in-the-box in 1863
Perhaps this is why we are so unsettled by clowns, and the jack-in-the-box in particular. I'd venture to say that perhaps our revulsion is not animalistic or juvenile, as so many of us have always believed. Perhaps it is something more: a sense that is spiritual.

Of course this wouldn't always hold true. "Clowns" from Shakespearean times were court jesters, and were often associated with wisdom, but that's not exactly what we're talking about here.

So, my writer's group were all sufficiently freaked out by the history of the jack-in-the-box. The more I thought about it, though, the more interesting it became to me. 

Besides, a devil living in a boot during the middle ages would make excellent historical fiction fodder, right? :D

Oh, and I'm a little creeped out by the Pop Goes the Weasel tune which often accompanies the Jack-in-the-Box. 


All around the mulberry bush (or cobbler's bench)
The monkey chased the weasel;
The monkey thought 'twas all in good fun, 
Pop! goes the weasel. (Source)

If we assume the monkey is the "jack" and the weasel is the human child, it becomes a little creepy.

What do you think of this history? Does it change your opinions of jack-in-the-boxes, or clowns?


  1. I don't think clowns would be near so creepy if they hadn't been distorted in horror movies. So I blame Hollywood for their corruption.

    As for Jack In The Boxes, that is a creepy story! A devil popping out at you while chirpy music is played. Not right. Not right at all! Thanks (I think?) for sharing this interesting little tidbit. Now I'm going to go hide and suck my thumb.

  2. I'll never eat at Jack in the Box again. I never thought about the history of these little toys. Very interesting Liesel.

  3. Creepy for sure.. Not a fan of the Jack in the box

  4. Dear Liesel, Thanks for the info. I've always wondered why adults were so afraid of clowns. I assumed that it was because of the demonetization of clowns in books and movies. (sometimes, I just want to slap Stephan King!) I have been a practicing clown for years at our church until the last year or two. The children loved us, but we had to stop since several adults were afraid of clowns. It is such a shame to lose that link to childhood.

    1. Hi there! I'm so glad you found value here. So cool that you've done that for the kids at your church. I'm sure they loved it at least. I always loved clowns as a child and had some clown dolls. Was never afraid of them. I'm sure you made lots of kids happy doing that. Go you!

    2. That's awesome making the children happy and laughing even if its just spending that little bit of their time dressed in the clown outfit, good job buddy 👍👍

  5. I've always found 'pop goes the weasel' sinister. Altho I would see the monkey as the human child who was chasing around in good fun and the weasel' as the demon/jack who was serious when he popped - grabbed or whatever (shudder)

    1. Yeah, for sure. Any old song can be creepy in the right (or wrong) context. ;D Thanks for reading!