The Weirdly Fascinating History of the Glove Compartment

Courtesy of Bentley
Courtesy of Bentley

"Regarding gloves -- never wear woollen gloves, but gloves made of good soft kid. You will find room for these gloves in the little drawer under the seat of the car." -- Dorothy Levitt, 1909, pioneering feminist and car girl.

A rather interesting conversation that involved Kleenex, Isotoner, and Jose Canseco led to a big question rarely asked: what the hell is the story with the "glovebox"? Nearly every car has one, and the vast majority of people haven't used gloves while driving in generations.

I hit the books in search of the answer, and it's kinda badass. First of all, people have their terms all mixed up -- there's a vast difference between a glovebox and a glove compartment. That storage area in your car that holds anything but gloves? That's a glove compartment, technically. A glovebox is that, er, box with gloves built into the side that you see in hospitals and every outbreak disaster movie ever. Now that we have that straightened out...

Courtesy of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum via The Old Motor

Packard is credited for the very first storage box...

At the turn of the 20th century, early cars were fighting to shed their image as "horseless carriages." Packard's approach to differentiate the automobile was to get rid of the dashboard -- which itself originated as a wooden or canvas panel to keep horses from splashing the driver with mud (and God knows what else) if they were... wait for it... dashing. In its place went a storage box, suitable for "parcels, waterproofs, etc." Thus, the designers at Packard, in 1900, with the car you see above, are the originators of the glove compartment… they just had no bloody clue what they made.

H.W. Nicholls

... but the idea to use the box for gloves can be traced to this woman

Dorothy Levitt is a name you should recognize because you read the quote at the start of this article. She was a major player in the earliest days of motorsport, and a total badass. She was Britain's first female race car driver (and a reasonably successful one, at that), an expert mechanic, flew planes, and held both the ladies land speed record and the overall water speed record.

Ms. Levitt also wrote a book, entitled The Woman and the Car. While some say the term "glove compartment" arose naturally (because gloves were the one item you wouldn't necessarily wear beyond the car, and thus were stored in it), she definitively offered up the early advice to store one's gloves in it: "You will find room for these gloves in the little drawer under the seat of the car. This little drawer is the secret of the dainty motoriste."

Seriously, read Levitt's book. It's amazing.

Courtesy of GM

Then the glove compartment became pretty baller

Eventually the need to wear driving gloves dissipated, and the glove compartment evolved. Perhaps the most awesomely unusable idea ever to find its way into a production car, Cadillac included a glovebox-sized cocktail set with its 1957 Eldorado Brougham. Granted, the car was considerably more expensive than even a Rolls-Royce of the day, but it's still amazing.

Courtesy of GM

Then stagnation set in

In the ensuing decades, other than gaining a lock on most cars, and occasionally a fuel door or trunk release button, and an ever increasing supply of junk like Kleenex and scratched CD's, nothing terribly noteworthy happened with the glove compartment -- with the exception of its appearance in the very excellent hip hop song by Chamillionaire, "Ridin'": "Glove compartment gotta get my cash / Cause the crooked cops try to come up fast." Note the use of correct terminology!

Courtesy of FCA

The final major evolution to date? Air conditioning.

When Dodge unveiled the "Chill Zone" in 2006, it seemed... odd. The premise was that it could hold soft drinks and keep them reasonably cool -- and while the car is on, sure, the cans stay chilled. Turn it off, and so goes the refrigeration. In the summer that meant a lot of exploded cans. Whoops.

Today, some cars have an audio-in jack, or even a USB port, but other than that, it's still largely... a glove compartment. Some cars have multiple, most still have one, but nearly every glove compartment today has one thing in common: it will probably never store a glove.

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. He keeps his owner's manual in the glove compartment, and his gloves in a much smaller, glove-sized compartment closer to the steering wheel.