Knowing that it was a mystery to a lot of folks, I did a little research. The first instance of the term I found in an Idaho paper was in the October 18, 1881 edition of the Idaho World. It was mentioned during an interview with convicted murderer Henry McDonald. In describing the murder of George Meyer. McDonald said, “He and I then got into a quarrel about the dog, and he came at me, I pushed him, and he fell over a sagebrush; he got up and started for the jockey box to get a six-shooter…” The jockey box, in that instance, was probably a box beneath the seat of the man’s wagon or buckboard.
The next mention of the phrase is from the Idaho Daily Statesman, June 23, 1896. A couple of lines tell the story, “He opened the jockey box on his seat and rummaged around in it, finally producing a small hatchet and a big nail.
“‘I guess you’ll have to drive her out with this,’ said he, and he sat down on the ground and hung on to a buckeye bush with both hands while one of his companions placed the end of the nail against the side of the tooth and hit it with the hatchet.”
Note that those early mentions were about wagons, not cars. The term referred to a small (as jockeys are supposed to be) box in which one stored certain essentials, such as guns and dental tools. That small box inside automobiles that served the same purpose picked up the same name in Idaho and other Western states.
So, laugh all you want, but what do you store in YOUR glove box? Gloves? Maybe. More likely the owner’s manual, an old CD, your registration, a couple of pens that don’t work, 16 cents, and a four-year-old peppermint. So, why call it a glove compartment? Jockey box is a nice generic term to indicate that the box is equivalent to the junk drawer in your house. You know, a place to put your hatchet.