MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why It’s Called “The Box Office”

When you go to the movies, you first get your tickets at the box offices, those enclosed, sometimes detached booths just in front of the theaters. But why do we call them “box offices”? Not once have I ever taken a box to them, have you?

The actual beginning of the box office involved a different type of box: the balcony compartments along the sides of a theater, where affluent patrons would enjoy performances from a higher (and swankier) vantage point (without having too much interaction with us commoners). When the term “box office” first began to appear in newspapers in the mid-1700s, it referred specifically to the point of purchase where people could buy tickets for those box seats.

Before theaters began offering regular tickets at box offices, you’d have to buy them from some designated person or business in town or at the theater’s stage door.

There are some other theories about why & how we use the phrase “box office”. Since the 1300s, the word “box” has been used to describe a money or collection box…like the one you would’ve paid into to get your theater tickets. It’s also been suggested that the “box office” dates all the way back to the late 1500s, when Elizabethan era balcony seating was glaringly separate from the “pit”, or the general admission area where low-paying theatergoers would take in the show. But there’s no actual written evidence of the term box office from before the early 1700s, so it’s most plausible that it was coined in reference to those box seats. From there, though, it wasn’t long before “box office” became a metonym for overall ticket sales, which first gained popularity in the early 20th century.

So, if you’re heading to the theatre to take in a movie tonight, at least you now know a bit about where you’ll be spending your money.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via Twitter (@AndyWebbRadio), or shoot me an email at [email protected].