Of Classic Lunch
Went to School
By Annie Groer
The Washington Post
passed since early man hid and hauled grain and game in primitive
carriers, most likely fashioned from grasses, leaves, animal hides
or tree bark.
By the 20th
century, that basic need to transport food was being met by ...
Hopalong Cassidy, the Jetsons and Barbie lunch boxes.
So deeply ingrained
in the national psyche are these vividly branded repositories of
sandwiches, cookies, apples and milk that the Smithsonian
Institution is running dual lunch box exhibits. “Taking America to
Lunch” opened this spring at the National Museum of American
History in Washington for an indefinite engagement. “Lunch Box
Memories” has been traveling the country since 2002 and is booked
who call themselves “boxers” and “paileontologists,” pay dearly
for the rarest metal examples: Last year, a rectangular 1954
Superman lunch box sold for $13,225, and a rare, pristine oval
1935 Mickey Mouse lunch pail could fetch $7,000.
“It pushes so many
buttons,” says David Shayt, curator of both exhibitions for the
museum's cultural history division. “It's TV, it’s childhood, it’s
school, it’s food, it’s mom, and it’s loss -- above all, because
so many people lost theirs.” Shayt contends his own early lunch
box, emblazoned with nuclear submarines and a diagram showing how
one worked, inspired him to become a Marine and later a historian
To be sure, lunch
boxes -- or kits or pails -- were not just for children. The
iconic black metal box, with a vacuum bottle tucked in its vaulted
top, has been a longtime staple of the hard-hat lunch break.
But the juvenile
boxes generally captivate collectors. And for many children, they
became early tribal artifacts, says Allen Woodall, owner of the
Lunch Box Museum in Columbus, Ga., and co-author of The
Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes, in which he and
Sean Brickell write: “They were our endorsement of something cool.
And by association, we, too, informed the world we were part of a
select group. With our lunch boxes, we celebrated all forms of pop
culture including TV shows, cartoons, movies, comic strips,
science, music acts and mythical figures.”
Like all hot
collectibles, price is governed by supply, demand and condition,
the last in this case being the most problematic. Lunch boxes
often took a beating at the hands of their young owners. Moreover,
they frequently were pitched out in June and replaced in September
by models hyping the latest hit movies and pop stars.
Showing up at
school with a passe lunch box was a major social blunder, says
Woodall, who toted his own sandwiches in brown bags during the
1940s. By the 1970s, he eagerly paid $5 and $10 at flea markets
for two lunch boxes celebrating his childhood radio heroes, Dick
Tracy and the Green Hornet, and a passion was born: “I really
loved the pop art on them. It was just so great.” Today he owns
2,100 lunch boxes and about 1,800 vacuum bottles, several dozen of
which he has given, sold or lent to the Smithsonian.
Shayt is smitten by
the broader evolutionary arc of the lunch box.
“Some of our
earliest examples, from the 19th century, were woven baskets with
handles. A meal would be wrapped in a handkerchief. Depending on
your station, a fancy wooden box would be used by the wealthy,” he
says. All these containers did the job of protecting food being
taken “either to work, school, church or picnics. It was not easy
to go home for lunch every day in the mid-19th century as small
shops grew into large factories, and you had the need for
By the 1860s, can
makers had obtained patents for tins just large enough for “a hunk
of meat, some bread, cheese, and maybe a pasty if it was a Welsh
immigrant family,” says Shayt. “In the British Isles, men had
lunch pails for going to the mines. Those were oval cylinders,
stacked and tightly sealed to keep coal dust and dirt out. From
British India came the stacked ‘tiffin' set. The American lunchbox
quite often had a reservoir of hot coffee at the top to keep the
rest of it warm.”
The trajectory of
children's boxes is entirely different, he says. In the 19th
century, children began carrying lunch in tins that often were
highly decorative. They originally held plug tobacco, lard or
biscuits and “it was a case of make do or do without,” Shayt says.
By the early 20th century, the lunch kit was revolutionized by a
modification of an earlier vacuum bottle constructed of
double-walled glass. Its fragility was minimized once it was
encased in metal. The addition of a cork stopper and screw-on cup
made it the perfect vessel to keep beverages hot or cold. “The
drink container came to dictate the shape of the workingman's box.
It was domed, like a Quonset hut, and the Thermos bottle clipped
in over top of the food,” says Shayt.
launched the first “character” lunch box in 1935 by putting Mickey
Mouse on the lid of an oval carryall; it had an interior pie tray
but no bottle. Only a handful of these tins, made for just two
years by Geuder, Paeschke & Frey of Milwaukee, have survived,
which may account for the $5,000 they can fetch, says Woodall.
It was television
-- not movie cartoons or the funny papers -- that really drove the
golden age of vivid metal lunch boxes, which spanned four decades.
In 1950-'51, TV
cowboy Hopalong Cassidy, who licensed hundreds of products,
granted rights to Aladdin Industries of Nashville to put his decal
on the outside of blue and red lunch boxes. Inside was a
beautifully lithographed vacuum bottle. More than 600,000 units
galloped off the shelves. Two years later, rival cowboy Roy Rogers
debuted on 2 million boxes made by the American Thermos Bottle Co.
But in the world of
serious collectors, Superman reigns supreme. First depicted by
ADCO Liberty in 1954 as “The World's Greatest Adventure Character”
doing battle with a robot, he went on to appear on boxes produced
by two other companies.
Over the next 30
years, Aladdin and Thermos dominated the market, which saw some
450 images and patterns on millions of boxes. Miss America. The
Flying Nun. Pele. Rat Patrol. Davy Crockett. Howdy Doody. Mork &
Mindy. Strawberry Shortcake. The Bee Gees. Care Bears. The
Berenstain Bears. Star Wars. Star Trek.
The list seemed
endless. But end it did, in 1985, with a gun-toting Sylvester
“Rambo” Stallone having the dubious honor of gracing the last
metal boxes, made by Thermos.
blamed parents whose little darlings were injured when lunch boxes
became weapons in a schoolyard brawl. An urban legend persists
that the Florida legislature actually banned them in the 1970s,
although no law has been found to confirm the tale.
But it was mostly a
matter of economics and hygiene that gave rise to soft vinyl, hard
plastic and insulated fabric lunch boxes and bags, says Shayt.
“Steel was too costly. You had to roll it, stamp it, lithograph it
off-site, roll the edges, put on handles and clasps.”
Such a costly
process does have its upside, says Woodall. “You can't counterfeit
lunch boxes. All that lithography and embossing required giant
Rising prices do
not seem to have deterred collectors.
At least three '54
Superman lunch box sales have gone into five figures, says Bryan
Los of Holyoke, Mass., a collector who runs the Web site
Last December, New
Jersey physician Jeffrey Landes paid $13,225 for one in a
MastroNet Inc. auction because, he says, “It's unused, in mint
condition. It's like the Holy Grail.”