by Neva Bodin
Five or six years ago I made a random stop at a garage sale.
“What is this?” I asked a nice young man conducting the sale. I picked up a heavy, dark wood oblong box with a handle on one end. The box was divided inside by a partition with a hole in the middle. Each side had its own hinged cover. Thin felt covered the backside of the inside chambers.
“I don’t know,” he replied while helping another costumer, “I’m just selling it for my friend, it’s his sale. He’s not here right now.”
It looked antique to me. “I’ll take it,” and handed the man five dollars.
I have asked numerous people over the years, “What is it?” No one has solved the mystery until recently when I hosted four couples on our patio for a 7:30 AM breakfast on a Saturday.
“I think it’s a ballot box like for the Mason’s or something,” one man said. And the mystery is solved.
The term “blackballed” was first used in 1770 according to Merriam-Webster online. It seems this “what’s it” of mine was used to prevent or vote someone out of a private club. And the box I have does resemble very closely the one listed on a site of antique boxes for Masons.
A bunch of white and maybe one or two black balls are made available to voting members of a club. They choose their color and drop them under cover of the box lid into the top chamber where they will drop down to mix with others in the bottom chamber. No one will know who voted against allowing the hopeful person join their club. But if someone drops a black ball in the box, the person is blackballed, or not allowed to join.
We now use the term for someone who is voted against, or forced from a job or organization by someone who is against them. I wonder how many times this term is used now days without the user knowing the origin or what it describes.
The rules for the organization may say if only one black ball is dropped in the box, the person is not allowed to join. Or it may require two balls.
There were no balls with my box, but now I will be on a quest to find some. And because I enjoyed hosting an early morning breakfast (there are a bunch of us who go to breakfast at a favorite coffee shop every Saturday morning at 7:30), I now know what my “what’s it” is!