Tuesday, April 29, 2014

More Fun than a Box(?) of Monkeys - A Barrel of Monkeys Update

More Fun than a Box(?) of Monkeys

In about 1880, two idioms emerged that established containers of monkeys as the gold-standard of hilarity.   The more familiar of the two idioms, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” is still well-known today.  In an earlier post, I showed that “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” first appeared in print at least in 1881, and perhaps used as early as 1877.  The phrase seems to have been based, at least in part, on several earlier associations of monkey with fun, being funny, barrel organs, and barrels.  My earlier post, however, missed what may have been an additional, perhaps bigger influence on the origins of the phrase. 

The phrase, “more fun than a box of monkeys” (or words to that effect), appeared in print at about the same time that the more familiar “barrel of monkeys” phrase appeared.  The origins of the term, “a box of monkeys,” as a standard for measuring humor, is more straight-forward and literal than for “a barrel of monkeys.”  Monkeys, it turns out, were shipped, stored and displayed in “boxes.”  Since monkeys were funny on their own, a box of monkeys was particularly hilarious.

Early References

The earliest reference I found for a “box of monkeys” as an idiom representing a large amount of humor is from early 1881, before the earliest-know printed references for “more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” although after the purported earliest use of the phrase in 1877.  The earliest reference is also presented in a round-about, verbose manner, which could reflect an archaic writing style, or a playful reworking of an already well-established idiom:

If Senator Mahone is a person of flirtatious tendencies, he can be safely reckoned upon as having more amusement at the present writing, than a box of monkeys.

The Emporia (Kansas) News, March 18, 1881.  

A use of the phrase a few years later, in a piece about an upcoming, local baseball game, suggests that it was thought to still be youthful slang:

[I]n fact, to use the expression of the boys, “there will be more fun than a box of monkeys can raise.”

Fort Worth (Texas) Gazette, September 11, 1884.  

In 1885, another newspaper used the phrase in association with a more serious event:

Mr. Pritchard formerly resided in Sedalia where he was much respected.  The Bazoo joins his many friends here in wishing him more fun than a box of monkeys in his new relation.”

The Sedalia (Missouri) Weekly Bazoo, February 24, 1885.

Boxes of Monkeys

Whereas “a barrel of monkeys” may have been influenced by various extraneous factors, such as barrel organs, the nautical phrase, “sucking the monkey” (drinking alcohol straight from the barrel), and a famous monkey who performed on a barrel, the phrase, “a box of monkeys” appears to literally originate from actual boxes of monkeys.   Numerous references attest to the use of monkeys being shipped, stored and displayed in “boxes”:

From an 1868 article about a fire in a building used to house circus animals:

In this building lions, tigers, monkeys, and other animals were kept in cages or boxes which had been constructed for temporary use.

The Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), November 16, 1868.

In an article about GeorgeFrancis Train (Independent candidate for President in 1872):

One of his ships, when he was in the shipping business, brought a box of monkeys from Peru, up the Amazon river, to London.

Memphis (Tennessee) Daily Appeal, April 6, 1871.

A newspaper report on a circus in Dallas, Texas refers to a “box of monkeys”:

Passing along, we found a tiger snugly ensconced in the cage of the tapir.  We concluded that the tapir was out visiting.  Three little baby camels were the center of attraction, and altogether the menagerie was good, our old friend, the mandrill, attracting much attention, together with the box of monkeys.

The Dallas (Texas) Daily Herald, April 6, 1871.

The sideshow at the Omaha Fair of 1885 displayed a box of monkeys:

“The Battle of Gettysburg,” a staggering daub at the famous Chicago painting, to which is added the zoological attractions of a few boxes of monkey and parrots, is the great and only side-show affair on the grounds.

The Omaha (Nebraska) Daily Bee, September 10, 1885. 

P. T. Barnum’s circus purportedly included a “box of monkeys”:

There is so much to be learned at the garden that the opinion is spreading that the principals of private schools are teaching the young ideas how to shoot under the benign influence of Jumbo and a box of monkeys.

The Sporting and Theatrical Journal, August 30, 1884, 251 (transcribed and posted on circushistory.org).

A box of monkeys was reportedly sent to the Norris & Rowe circus in 1906:

A box of monkeys arrived at the depot, from a well known wild animal dealer in Chicago Tuesday, billed to the Norris & Rowe circus. There were six of the little animals in the box and during their stay here excited considerable interest. They were forwarded Wednesday to the circus. 

The Little Falls Daily Transcript, August 8, 1906 (transcribed and posted on morrisoncountyhistory.org)

Boxes and Cages

The references cited above, which suggest that monkeys were displayed in “boxes,” use the word “box” in a way that might sound odd to the modern ear.  To my ear, at least, a “box” suggests solid, likely opaque sides, whereas a cage would suggest slats or bars with openings for viewing.  The use of “box” and “cage,” however, seems to have been interchangeable, or at least ambiguous, at least into the early parts of the twentieth century.  Several old sources also use the term, “box cage,” suggesting that there were “boxes” with the characteristics of cages.

“Boxes,” “cages,” and “box cages” seem to have been interchangeable, or at least ambiguous, when used in association with monkeys and other animals.  The following excerpts are a small sampling of the available sources that show the use of box, cage and box cage in relation to monkeys:

Around the room, in boxes and chained to the floor, were beavers, antelopes, monkeys and other animals.

The Grange Advance (Red Wing, Minnesota) August 5, 1874;

“There is no box,” said Bill, “except the monkey cage.”

The Indiana State Sentinel, November 24, 1880.

An article from 1895, about the history of circus elephants in the United States, suggests that monkeys had been displayed in "boxes" from as early as 1833: 

The same proprietors then imported a second elephant, which they also called Old Bet, and they enlarged their exhibition by adding to the collection a lion and a two horse cage and one monkey in a box strapped on to the hind end of the lion’s cage.  The second Old Bet landed in 1833.

The Worthington Advance (Worthington, Minnesota) November 21, 1895.

Monkey cages were still referred to as "boxes" in the early twentieth century:

The problem which Mr Haggerty is trying to solve is whether monkeys are imitators, or whether they find out things by themselves. The conclusions of the various investigators who have already delved into the question are at variance in the matter, and the Harvard man's summer with a roomful of simians, it is not unlikely, may shed important light on the knotty psychological puzzle.  Occupying the center of the stage in Mr. Haggerty's rather restricted laboratory is a large box, or cage, about seven feet high and three feet wide, made of pine boards, except for the front and one side, across which is stretched wire mesh. This the student of the simian intellect describes as his "trick" or "problem box."

The Appeal (St. Paul, Minnesota) September 5, 1908;

The Monkey Got Away. Ainsworth News: last Friday night after the performance here in the tent of Bonheur Bros.’ shows one of the two captive monkeys which they kept in a box cage, got out and escaped to the Chilvers’ ash grove west of town . . . .

The Norfolk Weekly News-Journal (Norfolk, Nebraska) July 15, 1910.

Billy Whiskers letting loose that box of monkeys

From Billy Whiskers at the Circus (1908)


A Box of Monkeys

Grace L. Furniss
In 1889, heiress and playwright, Grace Livingston Furniss published her first play, A Box of Monkeys, in the December 21 issue of Harper’s Bazar.  The humor of her play revolved around a rustic, western-raised American woman teaching American slang and behavior to an upper-crust, “titled” English Lady.  The phrase, “more fun than a box of monkeys,” is used several times during the course of the play.  The choice of the title, in a play about American slang and manners, reflects the belief that the phrase was an Americanism; as was “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” [(see my earlier post)]. 

Relative Popularity Over Time

In a completely unscientific, but perhaps only possible, readily accessible test to compare the relative frequency of use of the two phrases, I searched for the complete phrases, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” and “more fun than a box of monkeys,” in the Library of Congress’ online database of historical newspapers, with the following results:

Date Range
. . . barrel of monkeys
. . . box of monkeys
2 (in the same newspaper)
(*I adjusted some of the results downward, to account for multiple occurrences
of the same advertisements in multiple sources and on multiple dates.)

I measured the early days of use from 1836 through 1888, the year before the publication of “A Box of Monkeys.”  In the early days, both phrases appeared only a few times.  From 1889 through 1904, “box of monkeys” seems to have dominated, perhaps buoyed by the popularity of the play, A Box of Monkeys.  In 1902, newspaper articles on the occasion of the opening of a new play by Grace Livingston Furniss described A Box of Monkeys as, “the old standby of the amateurs,” that had achieved “success in amateur circles far and wide . . . .” The Witchita Daily Eagle, October 27, 1902; New York Tribune, December 7, 1902.  From 1905 through 1922, the relative frequency of the two phrases seems to have been nearly identical.

After 1922, the phrase “more fun than a box of monkeys” seems to have faded into oblivion.  In a search of an online, digital library, I found only six publications that used the phrase after 1922; one book and four periodicals from before 1940, and a collection of North Carolina folklore which was published in 1952 but based on folklore collected from 1912 to 1943.  A similar search for “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” resulted in hits in numerous publications, fiction, non-fiction and periodicals, throughout every decade from the 1920s and into the 1960s and beyond.


 Today, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” continues to dominate its poor cousin.  I certainly don’t remember ever having heard “more fun than a box of monkeys” until researching the origins of “more fun than a barrel of monkeys”; and then, I first assumed that it was merely an occasional corruption of the original.  Given the similar date of the first appearance of both phrases, it is difficult if not impossible, at this time, to figure out whether one or the other was first.

It is certainly plausible that, “box of monkeys,” preceded “barrel of monkeys.”  It could have been literally said that a box of monkeys was funny.  The more fanciful, “barrel of monkeys,” could then have emerged for all of the reasons given in my earlier posting; namely the multiple associations of monkeys with barrels, the already established phrase, "a barrel of fun," and the more humorous imagery.  The survival of the more fanciful phrase might be credited to its simply being funnier.

“More fun than a box of monkeys” might get the point across in a pedantic, literal manner; but “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” is simply more fun than “more fun than a box of monkeys.”  

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