A soapbox is a raised platform on which one stands to make an impromptu speech, often about a political subject. The term originates from the days when speakers would elevate themselves by standing on a wooden crate originally used for shipment of soap, or other dry goods, from a manufacturer to a retail store.
The term is also used metaphorically to describe a person engaging in often flamboyant, impromptu, or unofficial public speaking, as in the phrase, “Get off your soapbox.” Hyde Park in London is known for its Sunday soapbox orators, who have assembled at its Speakers’ Corner since 1872 to discuss religion, politics, and other topics. Blogs can be used as soapboxes within the context of the World Wide Web, and are often used for promotional purposes.
Throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th, prior to the invention of corrugated fiberboard, manufacturers used wooden crates for the shipment of wholesale merchandise to retail establishments. Discarded containers of every size, well-constructed and sturdy, were readily available in most towns. These “soapboxes” made free and easily portable temporary platforms for street corner speakers attempting to be seen and heard at improvised “outdoor meetings”, to which passersby would gather to hear often provocative speeches on religious or political themes.
The decades immediately preceding World War I have been called the “Golden Age of Soapbox Oratory”. Working people had little money to spend and public speakers pushing their social or political agendas provided a form of mass entertainment. Radical political parties, intent on bringing what they perceived as an emancipatory message to the working class, were particularly intent upon making use of “street meetings”, with their speeches and leaflets, to advance their specific message.
Street-corner oratory could also present its share of problems. Chief among these was the policy of local law enforcement authorities, who sometimes saw in radical political discourse a form of incitement to crime and violence and a threat to public order. Additionally, large street corner crowds listening to “soapboxers” would often obstruct public walkways or spill into public streets, creating inconveniences to pedestrians or vehicular traffic alike. Consequently, local authorities would often attempt to restrict public oratory through licensing or prescriptive banning.
This conflict between dedicated political or religious partisans and civil authorities intent upon the maintenance of public order made soapboxing a matter of frequent public contention. Throughout its history, soapboxing has been tied to the right to speak. From the period 1907 to approximately 1916, the Industrial Workers of the World conducted dozens of free speech fights in the United States, particularly in the West and the Northwest, in order to protect or reclaim their right to soapbox. Many prominent socialists and other radicals cut their political teeth[colloquialism] in these or similar free speech fights, including Seattle newspaper publisher Hermon Titus, Socialist Party of Washington leaders Alfred Wagenknecht and L.E. Katterfeld, IWW activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and prominent syndicalistWilliam Z. Foster.
Additional problems could be presented to street corner orators from rival political groups or hecklers. A skilled and effective “soapboxer” had to be quick on their feet, figuratively and sometimes literally, having the ability to express political opinions with clarity, to have ready answers for common objections, to be able to deflect hostility with humor or satire, and to be able to face difficulty or danger with fortitude. Soapboxing proved to be what one historian has called “a hard, but nevertheless necessary, process in the development of revolutionary leaders”.