meaning and origin of ‘Box and Cox’


Box and Cox - Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News -15 March 1924

“Box and Cox,” the famous farce by J. Maddison Morton, was first produced at the Lyceum in 1847. It has now been revived by Mr. Donald Calthrop, who is himself playing in it at the Coliseum. It is presented in the original manner. Our picture shows Mr. Donald Calthrop as Box (left), with Mr. Hubert Harben as Cox, and Miss Dora Gregory as Mrs. Bouncer.

from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London) – Saturday 15th March 1924



The British phrase Box and Cox is used to refer to an arrangement whereby people make use of the same accommodation or facilities at different times, according to a strict arrangement.

It is from the name of a highly successful one-act farce by the English playwright John Maddison Morton (1811-91), first produced at the Lyceum Theatre, London, on Monday 1st November 1847, in which an unscrupulous landlady lets out, unbeknown to them, the same room to two tenants, John Box and James Cox, the one by day and the other by night.

The Era (London) of Sunday 7th November 1847 published this review of Box and Cox:

The Royal Lyceum.—This truly beautiful and now highly fashionable place of amusement is beginning to put forth its strength. Fresh pieces are produced and others announced, and the management is, evidently, actively endeavouring to maintain the popularity of the house. A new farce, termed “Box and Cox,” was produced on Monday. It is from the pen of Mr. Morton, who had previously written some very successful pieces. This of “Box and Cox” was still more fortunate. It went off amid one continuous roar of laughter from first to last. Mr. Buckstone and Mr. Harley are the two heroes of the farce; indeed, the entire business of the piece lies between them, and most amusingly do they perform their joint task, that of “keeping up the fun” of the author for a period longer than that which one act farces generally occupy, and adding, by their manner of acting, their own fun to it, so as to increase the interest of the story, and add to its humour. Buckstone and Harley have never before been seen thus acting together, and this opportunity of seeing the drollery of one beside the comicality of the other, is evidently relished by the public. “Box and Cox” is a happy idea for a farce, and very whimsically struck out.
Box is a journeyman printer, and Cox a journeyman hatter. They lodge in the same house, and occupy the same room; each, however, being ignorant of the joint occupancy. Their landlady, Mrs. Bouncer (Mrs Macnamara), availing herself of the divided employments of her lodgers, receives a double weekly rent for the same room. Box, who is engaged as a compositor on a morning journal, is absent during the night, and Cox is engaged at his master’s shop, shaping and selling hats during the day. Box and Cox came into frequent collision on the general staircase, and Box is astounded at the variety of shapes and the quality of the beavers worn by Cox, while Cox is sorely annoyed at the freedom of the notice of Box. The avarice of Mrs. Bouncer succeeds for a time, but the job is too good to last, for it happens that Cox gets a holiday, and returns to cook a chop just at the moment that Box, who is fatigued, has lain himself on the bed to take forty winks. Previously, however, to this dilemma, Cox has rated the landlady for that, his coal has evaporated, his lucifers departed, and his chamber continually full of the unpleasant odour of tobacco. These are met with various excuses—amongst others, that Box, who, she says, occupies the attic, is a determined smoker, and that the smoke must naturally descend down the chimney. Box has brought home with him a rasher of bacon, which he at once prepares to cook; he lights the fire, is indignant that his lucifers have been used, and violent at the decrease of his candle; for, being at home only during the day, he most naturally suspects Mrs. Bouncer of the small depredations. Cox is, on his return, astonished to find the fire lighted, and is about to place his chop on the gridiron, when he beholds the rasher of Box. He removes it, places his chop in its stead, and rushes into an adjoining room for his plate, &c. The slamming of the door awakens Box, who, recollecting his rasher, starts from the bed, and finds the chop where he had left the rasher. He seizes the cutlet and flings it from the window, and leaving the room also to procure a plate. Cox re-enters, and, in lieu of his chop, discovers the rasher, which follows the chop out of the window. Box and Cox meet, a quarrel is the result, when Mrs. Bouncer explains the mystery, and throws herself upon the kindness of Box and Cox, by promising either of them a handsome second-floor back. After the storm is somewhat allayed, and a partial confidence is established between Box and Cox, it oozes out that Cox is about to be united to Widow Wiggins, a lady well to do in the world, being the proprietress of several bathing machines at Margate and Ramsgate. The circumstance excites the feelings of Box, who has had a love passage with the same lady, whose “love name” is Penelope Anne. But Box was unfaithful, and, to escape the clutches of the widow, had pretended to have committed suicide by drowning. Cox is also anxious to be rid of the widow, and agrees with Box in casting dice for the abnegation of Penelope Anne. Both have loaded dice, and at each successive cast they continue to throw sixes. The dice are then changed for shillings, and at every toss head wins, when it is discovered that each have coins with heads on both sides. A letter at this moment arrives from Margate stating that Penelope Anne had met with a watery grave while out a pleasuring, and that she has left her property to her intended husband. Box and Cox now contest their claims to the bathing machines, and words are growing high, and threats alarming, when a second letter arrives, which states that Penelope Anne is quite safe, and is on the road to London to claim her lover. Escape is now hopeless, and Box and Cox are in comic despair. A vehicle is heard approaching, a knock resounds at the door, Cox and Box are determined to resist the entrance of Penelope Anne, and place their backs to the door; the knocking is repeated—the landlady pleads for admission. Another and more satisfactory letter is received, in which Penelope Anne very wisely records her intention of giving herself and bathing machines to an admirer approximating closer to her own age, and more in accordance with her aquatic disposition. Box and Cox are delighted, and the romance of real life concludes with the discovery that Box and Cox are brothers, who have been long separated, but who are now determined to reside in the same house, and under the tenancy of the same mistress.

Box and Cox is largely based on Frisette, a one-act vaudeville by the French playwrights Eugène Labiche (1815-88) and Auguste Lefranc (1814-78), first staged at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, Paris, on Tuesday 28th April 1846. In this play, Madame Ménachet, the housekeeper, rents out, without their knowledge, the same room to Gabriel Gaudrion, a baker’s assistant, who uses it during the day, and to Frisette, a lace-maker, who uses it during the night. Gaudrion has been loathing women since his fiancée was unfaithful to him; he disappeared without warning. Frisette mistrusts men because Louise, her cousin, was abandoned by her fiancé; when Louise died, Frisette adopted her baby son, Gabriel. Gaudrion and Frisette finally meet, without at first knowing one another’s identity. Naturally, it turns out that Gaudrion is Gabriel’s father and that Louise remained faithful to her fiancé. Frisette and Gaudrion fall in love with each other and the play concludes with their engagement. Several situations in Box and Cox have their source in Frisette; for example, in the French play both the main characters notice that the firewood, the matches and the candle are quickly consumed, and Frisette complains that the room stinks of tobacco.

I have found an early use of the phrase Box and Cox, applied to a situation similar to that on which the play is based, in Letter from Paris, published in the Cheltenham Chronicle (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire) on Tuesday 31st December 1867:

A Box and Cox affair has just been disposed of by one of the City Judges. A young woman claimed that her landlord should refund some money she lent him, and his answer was, that he was owed rent by her for the letting of half a room. It turned out that the young woman occupied the room and bed, from the afternoon of one day till five o’clock the ensuing mornings, when she had to “turn out” of the bed to let the second lodger—a baker’s boy—“turn in.” The proprietor explained that the bed was let to both parties as described—that it was exhibition times—and that there were a great many strangers still in Paris. The magistrate decided that Mademoiselle was entitled to a whole bed—and if such was not provided, she should have half a one exclusively to herself. Yea a Daniel came to judgment—a decision Solomonian truly.

This other early use of the phrase is from The Western Morning News (Plymouth, Devon) of Friday 3rd August 1877:

Paris ‘s’amuse,’ and when Paris goes in either for amusement or more serious business it is apt to be, as Mr. Theodore Martin puts it, “somewhat insane.” […] The latest freak indulged in by the ‘mode’ in Paris is to stay in the metropolis during what has hitherto been the seaside season, and there turn night into day. Paris has hitherto been considered “quite too dreadful” during July and August; but this year the fashion has been set of lying in bed all day, and giving garden parties all night. Perhaps the nightingales in the Champs Elysées suggested the idea; but the rage for the moment is to assume the manners and customs of the ‘chiffonnier,’ so far as taking rest in sleep is concerned. Fashionable Paris and Paris unfashionable have a sort of Box and Cox life. They met the other morning at the Halles Centrales, whither, after a night of frivolity, a party of the Upper Ten adjourned in evening costume, and made their purchases for that evening’s dinner before retiring for the protracted siesta of the day. What eccentricities people are guilty of when they have nothing particular to do, and how much one would like to find them a little profitable employment!

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