Q&A: The origin of “soapbox” and “soap operas”

origin of soapbox and soap operas

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're in a lather…

Q: Hey AWC, can you tell me why people get up on soapboxes to express their opinions?

A: Because we value freedom of speech?

Q: Ah yeah, okay. No, I meant WHY is it a SOAPBOX?

A: Ooooh, gotcha.

Q: When I buy soap it comes in a squirty pump bottle.

A: Well, for starters, getting up on your squirty soap bottle just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Plus it’s harder to balance up there.

Q: Fair enough.

A: And we are of course talking about the wooden types of boxes that soap used to come in – presumably in bulk quantities. They were deemed sturdy enough to stand on in the street and be heard by passersby.

Q: When did the idea of um, soapboxing, start?

A: Well, soap and other goods had been transported in those wooden boxes since around the 1600s. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that the practice of standing in public and speaking on a variety of topics (such as religion or politics) became popular – particularly on Sundays in places like Speakers’ Corner in London.

Q: So people just carried their box to the park and started talking?

A: Absolutely! In the very early 1900s it was the thing to do, with such boxes readily available. That’s where the phrase, “let’s see what’s on the box tonight” came from.

Q: Really?

A: No, just kidding. That was about television. 

Q: Ugh. But why so much soap – was it really that dirty back then?

A: Well, yes, but that’s not the point. It’s likely that all these wooden boxes weren’t SOAP boxes – some may have contained other goods. But “soapbox” was simply the generic term. 

Q: Like today’s “soapbox derbys” – or billy cart races? I’m pretty sure none of THEM are made from an actual soapbox!

A: Exactly. These days, it’s a catch-all term for any DIY cart, although it’s likely that when soapbox derbys first started in the US in the 1920s, wooden soapboxes would have been a cheap source of building materials.

Q: And what about getting on your soapbox these days?

A: Well, you no longer need an actual wooden box to do so. It’s used figuratively for what Macquarie Dictionary describes as “anyone holding forth about one's pet theory, opinion, etc., especially politics”.

Q: Yes, social media has certainly seen the resurgence of soapboxes.

A: It has. By the way, the term is usually one word, but a hyphen – “soap-box” – is also acceptable.

Q: Good to know. So, is all this drama at all related to “soap operas”? How did they get THEIR name? Did the actors originally stand on boxes to be seen and heard?

A: Not quite. That term came about in the early days of radio plays – in particular the serialised “to be continued” variety that became popular in the 1930s. They usually dealt with domestic issues and relationships due to their daytime slot – with housewives the main audience, and often ended with a cliffhanger to encourage listeners to return next time.

Q: “Jacob my love, I’m home–– wait… what are you doing with Edward??!” Duhn duhn duhhhhhhhn.

A: Yes, that sort of thing. The first serialised radio play of this type debuted in 1930, but the term “soap opera” didn’t catch on until 1939. In fact, they were originally known as “horse operas” – a throwback to silent movies and the horse riding off into the sunset.

Q: Sure, but WHY soap?

A: Oh yes. The name “soap opera” eventually stuck due to the large number of soap companies that advertised (to the housewives) during the broadcasts or sponsored the shows. If you’ve ever seen the musical Evita, she started out singing soap jingles on the radio.

Q: Oooh, I love that musical! Although I never understood why they didn’t explore Tina and Arj’s characters more. They seemed quite important.

A: Are you sure you have the right musical?

Q: Absolutely. “Don’t cry for me, Arj and Tina…”

A: Oh dear.

Q: Anyway, so to recap. To be on your soapbox once literally meant standing on a box to express your opinion publicly, but now that boxes are cardboard and flimsy, they are no longer required – but the phrase remains.

A: Correct! 

Q: And a soap opera was once literally a radio melodrama sponsored by soap companies, but now they’re still overly emotional but not backed by detergents called “Zazz”. 

A: A clean sweep!

Q: Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just have to kiss this person as my actual lover walks through the door. Oh no! What have I done!

A: Tune in next week folks…

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