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A Moveable Feast: The History of Early and Collectible American Lunchboxes

by Rebekah Kaufman (08/13/12).

A collection of 1960s-era metal lunchboxes. Just about every American child had a least one of these metal lunchboxes to take to elementary school. Now they can be worth three and four figures.

If you are hungry for details on the history of vintage American lunchboxes, you have come to the right place.

Of the three meals, lunch has always been the one most likely to be enjoyed away from home, thanks to conventions like work, school and travel. So it is no surprise that the design and evolution of lunch pails—and later lunch boxes—also follows the culture and aesthetic of American tastes, values, and interests.

Like many everyday items we take for granted, early “lunch transporters” were created out of pure necessity. In the 1800s, the country was busy building itself and its infrastructure, meaning that many people were hard at work constructing railroads and roadways, clearing land for building, coal mining and farming. These jobs took workers into the fields, forests and underground… but they still needed to have their mid-day meal. As a result, people began bringing their lunches in sturdy metal pails, usually with tops. This arrangement allowed them to tote their food as well as protect it from bugs, the elements and the dangers of the job—including things like coal, dirt and dust. Some mid-to-late-1800s manufacturers even made “specialty” lunch pails, combining a kerosene lamp and a lunch storage area in the same device.

A cigar tin lunch box.

An early worker’s sectional lunch tin.

Around this time, children started taking their lunches to school—often in homemade “mini” lunch pails configured from a recycled tobacco, cigar or coffee tins. The first commercially manufactured lunch box designed specifically for children was introduced in 1902. It was shaped to resemble a picnic basket and was decorated with drawings of children playing.

As the Industrial Revolution rolled on across the US, more and more working-class jobs moved from the fields to the factories. Not able to enjoy a hot meal for cost or work rules reasons, most blue collar workers brought their lunch to work in lunchboxes. Like lunch pails, these were purely functional and designed for efficient transport, not aesthetics. Although the Thermos as we know it today was invented in 1892, it was not produced on a commercial scale for a few years. By 1904, it became a staple in many workers’ lunch boxes—and in company lunchrooms and eating areas.

A mickey Mouse “lunch kit” from the 1930s.

The marriage of popular culture and lunch box design really started in the mid-1930s. Disney’s Mickey Mouse, who even today is a popular and beloved cultural icon, was “invented” in 1928 by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks at The Walt Disney Studios. An instant “celebrity,” Mickey quickly became a hot licensing property and appeared in plush, on clothing, watches, household items and, of course, lunchboxes. As a matter of fact, Mickey was the first mascot to appear on a lunchbox—or “lunchkit,” as Disney described it—in 1935.

The next big “revolution” in lunchbox history and design took place in the early 1950s. Up to that time, the lunchbox was still rather pedestrian and considered a necessity, not a fashion or personal statement. And, as a business, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for “upselling” or repeat purchases, as early lunch boxes were built for the long run.

Like many major cultural shifts, this change could be directly tied to the ever-increasing popularity—and influence—of television. Although television as a media source had been in existence since the late 1920s, it wasn’t until right after the Second World War that televisions were produced on a commercial scale for the U.S. market. Next, regular commercial network programming came into existence in 1948. All of a sudden, marketers from lunchbox manufacturing companies realized that by decorating their plain lunch boxes with current popular television heroes, they could sell more items and encourage multiple purchases! It is at this point that lunchboxes really came into their own in terms of aesthetics and future collectivity.

A decal of television cowboy Hopalong Cassidy was added to Aladdin’s standard line of red children’s lunchboxes in 1950. It was the first television character-themed lunchbox.

The next year American Thermos entered into an agreement with cowboy television stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and used bright, full-color lithography on all sides of the box.

The first TV “star” featured on a lunchbox was the television cowboy Hopalong Cassidy in 1950. Aladdin, the lunchbox manufacturer, hired an artist to create a simple yet attractive drawing of the famous cowboy—with guns drawn—that could be featured as a decal on their standard line of red children’s lunchboxes. The Hoplalong Cassidy lunchbox retailed for $2.39—it is interesting to note that $2.39 in 1950 has the same buying power as $22.85 in 2012—so these things were not cheap! According to Aladdin records, this one product alone caused company sales to jump from 50,000 to 600,000 units in just one year. In 1952, the company continued its success with the launch—literally—of its Tom Corbin, Space Cadet lunchbox.

A good—and profitable idea—tends to spread quickly. In order to boost slumping sales, another lunchbox manufacturer, American Thermos, entered into an agreement with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, cowboy stars of the 1951-57 television hit “The Roy Rodgers Show.” But unlike Aladdin, which simply put an image on the side of its lunchbox, American Thermos used bright, full-color lithography on all sides of the box. The results? According to company records, American Thermos sold 2.5 million Roy Rogers & Dale Evans boxes in 1953, increasing its total sales by 20 percent in one year.

Soon, every icon that could attract the attention of America’s youth were added to lunchboxes, including Snoopy and The Beatles.

While tin was the metal favored by lunchbox manufacturers, experiments with other materials were conducted, including vinyl-covered cardboard.

The innovations just continued in a fast and furious rate, as marketers and licensing professionals realized the potential revenue in lunch box commercialization and sales. Several new lunchbox manufacturers entered the market in the mid-1950s, including ADCO Liberty and Universal. In the late 1950s, manufacturers started rounding off the top of their lunchboxes, creating “domed” versions that offered additional opportunity for design and embellishment. This design was often used for timely—but not time sensitive—themes, like school buses, Snoopy’s doghouse, barns and zoo cages. By the early 1960s, designs were stamped into the metal, not simply painted on.

The 1950s through the 1970s truly represent the “glory days” of brightly colored and collectible metal lunchboxes. During these three decades, it is estimated that more than 120 million of these lunch-toting fashion statements were sold across the United States. Chances are, your favorite TV show, cartoon character or cultural icon was featured on one—or more—of these now iconic bits of American history. Today, mid-20th-century lunchboxes in pristine condition featuring the Beatles, Superman, Davy Crocket, Dudley Do-right, the Munsters and the Man From Atlantis can fetch three and four figures at auction.

The “Lost in Space” lunchbox in the Taking America to Lunch display at the Smithsonian.

A Harlem Globetrotters lunch box in the Taking America to Lunch display.

June Lockhart, of “Lost in Space” and “Lassie,” places a Lost in Space lunch box into the Taking America to Lunch display.

Meadowlark Lemon, formerly of the Harlem Globetrotters, places a Harlem Globetrotters lunch box into Taking America to Lunch display.

Recognizing the influence and importance of lunch box history as it relates to American history, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC has a permanent exhibit of historically important lunchboxes, located in its lower level, in the Stars and Stripes Cafe. An all-around perfect destination for a visual as well as lunchtime feast!

Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.

One Response to “A Moveable Feast: The History of Early and Collectible American Lunchboxes”

  1. Gregory Watkins Gregory Watkins says:

    You know it’s funny, I know I had several lunchboxes through my elementary school years, but I can only remember one lunchbox that I owned:

    Planet of the Apes (http://www.fanpop.com/spots/lunch-boxes/images/2585694/title/planet-apes-vintage-1974-lunch-box-photo)

    The others must not have been very exciting… I remember those that my friends owned, and was very jealous of the Secret Spy lunchbox owned by my buddy Joe (http://www.rubylane.com/item/217010-7810/1968-Secret-Agent-Metal-Lunchbox78).

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