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What is a Jack-in-the-Box?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2014
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A jack-in-the-box is a children's toy which consists of a spring-loaded puppet inside a box. When the box is wound up or otherwise activated, a short tune plays and the puppet pops out of the lid. These toys are commonly available at toy stores, in a range of designs and sizes, and many people think of them as being rather nostalgic, since children have been playing with jack-in-the-boxes for centuries. For enterprising crafters, a jack-in-the-box can also be made at home.

The origins of the jack-in-the-box are a bit murky. Various articulated and clockwork toys have been made since Greek and Roman times, but the modern form of the jack-in-the-box probably emerged in the 1400s in Nuremberg, a German city which is famous for its clockmaking and toy production. There are various theories about the name; although “Jack” is a slang term for “everyman” in many cultures, and this could be considered a clue.

Creating clockwork toys often started as a hobby of clock makers, who applied their skills from clock making and repair to the production of toys. Eventually, some struck out on their own, creating workshops specifically dedicated to toy manufacture and producing elaborate, beautiful, and very complicated clockwork toys. The design of a jack-in-the-box is actually fairly simple, especially when compared to the detailed moving scenes and other sorts of clockwork toys historically produced in Nuremberg.

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Classically, the puppet in a jack-in-the-box is a clown, decorated in bright, garish colors, although other figures may be used as well. The music is typically simple, with a crescendo timed for the moment when the puppet pops up, for maximum effect. Some children actually find these pop-up toys disturbing or upsetting, especially those who are afraid of or nervous around clowns.

The puppet used in a jack-in-the-box can be made from soft material which is designed to expand when it exits the box, heightening the comic effect, or it may be hard and rigid. The spring is usually fairly giving, so that the user just needs to give the puppet a gentle push to force it back into the box, at which point a clasp will grab the spring and hold the puppet in place until the toy is activated again.

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