MUNDANE MYSTERIES: How Did The Term “Box Office” Originate?

On the heels of this year’s Oscars ceremony, where so many “box office blockbusters” were honored, have you ever wondered where the term “box office” originated? You couldn’t be blamed for thinking it sprouted from the box-like nature of many old-fashioned box offices, which were enclosed, detached booths situated just outside theaters…but you’d still be wrong.

The actual “box office” beginnings most likely involved a different type of box: the balcony compartments along the edges of a theater, where rich patrons were able enjoy performances from a privileged vantage point without having to mingle too much with the commoners. When the phrase “box office” started appearing in newspapers during the mid-1700s, it specifically referred to the place where people could purchase box seats.

It didn’t take long for theaters to start offering regular tickets at box offices, too. Before that, you usually had to purchase them from some designated person or business in town or at the theater’s stage door. And that practice didn’t die out as soon as box offices began to catch on.

There are other theories behind how the phrase “box office” originated. The word “box” has been used to describe a money box or collection box since the 14th century, and, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term “box office” could have originally referred to that kind of box. It’s also been suggested that “box office” dates back to the Elizabethan era, when balcony seating was starkly separate from the “pit,” the general admission section where low-paying theatergoers watched the show. But without any written evidence of the term “box office” from before the Georgian era, it seems most plausible that it was coined in reference to those box seats. From there, it was only a short leap to using the phrase as a metonym for overall ticket sales, a practice that first gained popularity in the early 1900s.

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