Why Is It Called a Glove Box?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you have been in a car, you’ve probably heard someone say, “Can you see if there is [name of item here] in the glove box?” And you know exactly where that is: the storage area on the passenger side of the car. However, if you say that in front of a car aficionado, they will quickly correct you, “You mean the glove compartment, don’t you?” Indeed “glove compartment” is the proper term although the term “glove box” (or “glovebox”) is used interchangeably. In different parts of the U.S., the glove compartment is known as a “cubby” or “cubby hole” (Minnesota, Wyoming) or “jockey box” (Idaho). When scientists or medical professionals uses the term glovebox, they are referring to either a box that contains gloves (similar to a tissue box, with a slit at the top that dispenses gloves, rather than tissues) or a sealed bio-safe glass container that allows a user to slip their arms and hands into gloves to manipulate an object in a separate atmosphere to prevent contamination (you’ve seen these in the movies, for example, when scientists are working with a dangerous contagion).

To understand the origin of the term, we need to step into the time machine and travel back to the early 1900s when  the transportation industry was transitioning from horse-drawn carriages to engine-powered cars. The Packard Motor Car Company of Warren, Ohio founded by James and William Packard, introduced an early automobile, aptly called the Packard Model A. The Packard was powered by a single-cylinder engine and looked much like a horse-drawn carriage (the buggy-style body was even built by Morgan and Williams, an established carriage-maker); however, the standard splash board (used to prevent mud from splattering the occupants) was replaced by a large storage box, resembling a wide wooden locker, which was intended for parcels or any items that needed to be protected from the elements. The very first Packard built in 1899, known as “Old Number One” is on display at Packard’s alma mater, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Packard Model A was considered a luxury vehicle, selling for $2,600 (about $82,000 in today’s dollars) that competed against several other early automobiles priced from $375 to $1,500. Since many of the early automobiles were open carriages, lacking side windows and a hard top, and did not have a heating system, a driver’s hands would get very cold and numb as they were exposed to the rush of cold air. The antidote: driving gloves, of course!

Using Google Ngram Viewer we see that the term “glove compartment” makes its first appearance in 1901 and really takes off in the 1930s. One of the most notable persons to popularize the term glove compartment was the incomparable Dorothy Levitt (1882-1922) —  a woman way ahead of her time. Although not a well-known name like Amelia Earhart (1897-1939) Levitt was a true trailblazer: she was an accomplished race care driver, pilot, and equestrian, holding many world records throughout her career. Her employer, the Napier Car Company, promoted her many victories and supported her mission to encourage women to drive cars, which in the early 1900s was quite revolutionary (remember that white women did not have voting rights until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1919; Black women had to wait for that same right until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965). In 1909 she published a book, titled The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for All Women Who Motor or Want to Motor, that promoted independence and female motoring. Levitt covered all the important aspects of driving, maintenance, attire, and manners. The first eight chapters of her book included these topics:

(1) The car: it’s cost, upkeep and accessories
(2) The all-important question of dress
(3) The mechanism of the car
(4) How to drive
(5) Troubles: how to avoid and mend them
(6) Hints on expenses
(7) Motor manners
(8) Tips: necessary and unnecessary

In chapter two, Levitt provides advice about gloves and where to store them (note, the particular model of car she drove had the glove compartment under the seat of the car):

“Regarding gloves — never wear woollen gloves, as wool slips on the smooth surface of the steering-wheel and prevents one getting a firm grip. Gloves made of good, soft kid, furlined, without a fastening, and made with just a thumb, are the ideal gloves for winter driving. 

You will find room for these gloves in the little drawer under the seat of the car. This little drawer is the secret of the dainty motoriste. What you put in it depends upon your tastes, but the following articles are what I advise you to have in its recesses. A pair of clean gloves, an extra handkerchief, clean veil, powder-puff (unless you despise them), hair-pins and ordinary pins, a hand mirror and some chocolates are very soothing, sometimes!”

So the term glove compartment or glove box is an anachronism, a lexical vestige from the the early days of the automobile industry at the turn of the 20th century. The residents of Minnesota, Wyoming, and Idaho have it right — after more than a century, it is time to consistently use a more generic term like “cubby” or something like “accessory compartment” or “dashboard compartment” or even “dashboard box.” (This is especially aimed at the new generation of writers of owner’s manuals!)

So if car owners are not storing driving gloves in the glovebox, it begs the question: what do people actually store in there? Typical items include the vehicle’s owner’s manual, car registration, proof of insurance, napkins, pen, notepad, straws, hand sanitizer, tissues, and receipts. The editors of Hotcar magazine, however, wanted to find out what were some of the weirdest things people kept in their glove compartments. Here are some weird items:

Cremated ashes of a relative
$80,000 hides inside the owner’s manual
Note to a car thief
Bottle of holy water

What’s in your glovebox?

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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For further reading: The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for All Women Who Motor or Want to Motor by Dorothy Levitt
Car: The Definitive Visual History of the Automobile by DK Publishing
Drive: The Definitive History of Driving by Giles Chapman and Jodie Kidd