Green’s Dictionary of Slang

sweat-box n.

[note ‘The original “sweat box” used during the period following the (US) Civil War [...] was a cell in close proximity to a stove, in which a scorching fire was built and fed with old bones, pieces of rubber shoes etc, all to make great heat and offensive smells, until the sickened and perspiring inmate of the cell confessed in order to get released’ (deposition to the Rep. Nat. Comm. Law Observance & Enforcement, 1931)]

1. any small, hot room, or place.

[US]J.W. Haley Rebel Yell and The Yankee Hurrah (1985) 278: Sherman’s army passed through our ‘sweat box’ on their way to Bladensburg to camp. There isn’t room enough for both armies on this side of the Potomac.
[US]G.W. Peck Peck’s Sunshine 229: When they palm off twelve grown persons onto a granger, in a sweat box like this, I had rather go to camp.
[US]Omaha Dly Bee (NE) 29 May 15/3: The traveller emerges from this miniature Sahara with a mighty thirst [...] Some of the presbyterian delegates passed through this delightful sweatbox.
[US]Hawaiian Star (Honolulu) 19 Oct. 5/3: The most work that is done by the prison laborers is in the rockcrusher ‘sweat-box‘ [...] The Porto Rican vagrants in the sweat-box have the job of handling the rock as it comes out crushed. It is a hot place.
[US] ‘Bisbee’s Queen’ in Lingenfelter et al. Songs of the Amer. West (1968) 154: They’ll hand you to a jigger, who will escort you down below, / And introduce you to a sweatbox where breezes never blow.
[US]E. Anderson Hungry Men 79: What I hate is the idea of sleeping down here in this sweat-box.
[US]W.L. Gresham Nightmare Alley (1947) 25: Stan slipped out of the sweat-box.
[US]T. Capote Breakfast at Tiffany’s 75: She spent whole hausfrau afternoons slopping about in the sweatbox of her midget kitchen.
[US]J. Pearl Stockade 63: I don’t see why the alternates have to sit in this sweat box for two hours.
[US]G. Scott-Heron Vulture (1996) 29: By eleven o’clock John’s party had turned into a downhome ‘sweat box’.
[US]Big L ‘Ebonics’ [lyrics] A sweat box is a small club.

2. (orig. US) an oppressively small cell; a punishment cell.

[US]US Navy General Orders and Circulars (1887) 97: He was [...] gagged and confined in a sweat-box of such dimensions that it was impossible to sit down [OED].
[UK]W.B. Churchward Blackbirding In The South Pacific 27: ‘Lug the d——d black scoundrel down to the “sweat-box.”’ [...] this sweat-box, as they call it, is a sort of cell right down below in the bilge [...] pitch dark, and hot as hell.
[US]Jamestown Wkly Alert (ND) 12 Nov. 7/2: [headline] In the Sweatbox. A Leading Memphis Attorney Put There by a Judge — Great Indignation.
[US] ‘Jargon of the Und.’ in DN V 465: sweat box, [...] (2) A narrow, coffin-shaped box into which a man is put with his arms chained above his head. His face is smeared with molasses, which flies and mosquitos are allowed to eat. This punishment is alleged of the convict camps of the South.
[Aus]Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW) 5 Oct. 4/6: Torture of Convicts [...] two goal officials accused of the ‘sweatbox’ murder of Arthur Mallbefert, a young prisoner.
[Aus]Cairns Post (Qld) 5 Oct. 5/6: The ‘sweat-box’ is a dark, narrow, vertical, coffin-like box in which the prisoners, with stocks on their feet and a chain around their neck, fastened abiove, are compelled to stand rigid in the blazing sun.
[US]N. Algren Somebody in Boots 124: Hell, man, you ain’t seen a real jail till you’ve stood up in a East Florida sweat-box a spell.
[US]Goldin et al. DAUL 216/1: Sweat-box. (South) A chain-gang or other road-gang punishment chamber of corrugated steel, usually 7 ft. high by 4 ft. square, with a peaked roof. Inside, from the roof apex, hangs a heavy strap with leads to be fastened to the prisoner’s wrists.
[US]T. Runyon In For Life 60: Instead of being blackjacked or flogged or threatened with a sweat box, I was de-ironed and de-escorted.

3. a room, usu. in a police station, in which prisoners undergo interrogation; also attrib.

Salt Lake City Herald (UT) 12 Nov. 6/2: The superintendant was asked if he justified the use of the ‘sweat-box’ by detectives. ‘Cerainly I do [...] It is necessary to get hold of [...] the guilty persons and either scare them or argue them into a confession’.
[US]J. Flynt World of Graft 102: They put him in the sweat-box, made him cough.
[US]J. Sullivan ‘Criminal Sl.’ in Amer. Law Rev. LII (1918) 888: The third degree and sweatbox methods are not calculated to kindle warm friendships between the underworld and [...] the police.
[US]G.T. Fleming-Roberts ‘Snatch Bait’ in Ten Detective Aces Oct. [Internet] He drew his colleagues into one corner of the little cubbyhole that serves as a sweat box down at the ninth precinct station.
[US]G. Henderson Keys to Crookdom 420: Sweat box – a man is put in the sweat box when browbeaten by inquisitors.
[US]Howsley Argot: Dict. of Und. Sl.
[US](con. early 1950s) J. Ellroy L.A. Confidential 154: Waiting for him: Breuning, two hooker types – laughing up a storm in the sweatbox.

4. (US) the upper gallery of a theatre.

[US]Chicago Trib. 10 July 1/4: The upper gallery commonly known as the ‘sweat box’ in regular theaters.

5. a cell for prisoners waiting to appear in a magistrate’s court.

[UK]Barrère & Leland Dict. of Sl., Jargon and Cant.
[UK]Farmer & Henley Sl. and Its Analogues.

6. the equivalent of an SE sweat shop.

[US]S. Ford Side-stepping with Shorty 40: Me back to the sweat box at eight when I’m getting fourteen for this? Not on your ping pongs!

7. (US) one who is sweating heavily.

[US]‘Ed Lacy’ Men from the Boys (1967) 10: ‘Beat it, you sweatbox.’ ‘You ain’t kidding, I feel soggy.’.

8. (US black) a crowded party.

[US]H.E. Roberts Third Ear n.p.: sweatbox n. a crowded party.

9. a prison van, used to transport prisoners from court to prison etc.

[UK]Sun. Times Mag. 30 Sept. 33: A prison van passes, and one boy turns to the others: ‘A sweatbox!’.
[UK]J. Healy Grass Arena (1990) 94: Locked in the sweat box, driven round London, picking up cons from other courts.
[UK]J. Cameron It Was An Accident 52: I took my Visiting Order felt a bit strange. [...] This time not travelling in a sweatbox either.
[UK]N. ‘Razor’ Smith A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun 117: Four screws [...] put me in handcuffs and carted me on to a sweatbox. I was on my way to the Old Bailey.
C.A. Lee Murders at White House Farm (2016) 381: Jeremy [Bamber] was handcuffed was driven in the sweatbox to Wormwood Scrubs.