Although the expression in its current form came first from the pen of Frederick Marryat, the idea had been around for a long time before that – but not quite as we know it. James Boswell came close when in 1769 he wrote that the ‘delicate and polite’ Mr Berenger had described Dr Johnson’s behaviour in genteel company as being like that of’an ox in a china shop’
Sir Walter Scott retained the action but changed the animal in The Fortunes of Nigel (1822):
A person who had a general acquaintance with all the flaws and specks in the shields of the proud, the pretending and the nouveaux riches, must have the same scope for amusement as a monkey in a china shop.
Just over a decade later, Marryat’s novel Jacob Faithful (1834) brought the image into line:
Whatever it is that smashes, Mrs T. always swears it was the most valuable thing in the room. I’m like a bull in a china shop.
In 1936 considerable publicity was engendered by an incident in New York. Bandleader Fred Waring and actor Paul Douglas had a bet, which Waring lost. His forfeit for losing the wagerwas to lead a full-grown bull through a real china shop, and pay for any damage the bull might cause. In the event, the bull sauntered elegantly through the shop without damaging a single piece.
Ironically, Waring was so nervous that he knocked over a table full of valuable ornaments.