Walk into any public school cafeteria today and you’ll find salad bars with fresh greens and veggies and at least a half dozen choices for mid-day meals and snacks. Back when baby boomers were attending school, you were lucky to find one choice for a hot lunch, usually the same offering on the same day each week. The only other option was to bring your lunch, either in a plain brown bag, or in a spiffy lunch box, with matching thermos for cold milk, juice or even hot chocolate or soup.
Vintage lunch boxes, have become pop art collectibles and a nostalgic way for some boomers to get back a taste of their youth. Artists who designed the lunch boxes drew inspiration from popular television shows, comic books and cartoons.
Aladdin Industries, based in Chicago is widely credited with the creation of the first theme lunch box in 1949 based on the television series western, “Hopalong Cassidy.” The simple steel lunch box, with a decal featuring “Hoppy” was offered for sale in 1950 and sold 600,000 units for all of $2.39 each. Profits from the “Hoppy” funded Aladdin’s move from Illinois to Nashville where the company followed up its success in 1952 partnering with the producers of “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” for a new lunch box.
Competition soon followed with the American Thermos company entering the marking in 1953 after purchasing the license for the “Roy Rogers” lunch box using lithograph instead of decals. American Thermos went on to design nine different scenes from the popular western television show.
For many youngsters in the ’50′s, a new lunch box was as essential to the first day of school as a new pair of shoes – a way to let classmates know something about you and your ever-changing interests.
Domed lunch boxes, smaller versions of the kind many fathers took to work, were introduced in 1957 and offered lunch box artists a new shape to work with. Some hit the mark. A domed lunch box with a school bus design featuring Disney cartoon characters sold an amazing nine million units, while a simple red barn design on a domed lunch box proved uninspiring to kids and didn’t sell as well.
In the early 1960′s both vinyl lunch boxes and steel lunch boxes lithographed with various plaids were introduced. Presumably the plaids were offered as boomers entered their preteen and teenage years, when a little more sophistication was in order.
Many antique stores have a selection of lunch boxes to choose from for any collector and the prices can vary widely. At Reminisce Antiques in Tullahoma, Tennesse, an entire rack of colorful steel lunch boxes featuring everything from comic book super heroes to film characters like E.T. are available for $30 to $50. Just down the road in Winchester, Tennessee at the Winchester Antique Mall, an antique plaid steel box, showing quite a bit of wear and tear was marked at $8.50. At that same store, just a thermos from a 1978 Superman lunch box was marked at $8.50 allowing a collector with the lunch box to complete the kit, if they desired.
Today collectors will pay some big bucks for those little boxes. A 1954 Superman lunch box in mint condition sold for $13,500 three years ago, but for someone just starting out, a 1980′s era Dukes of Hazzard lunch box can be found for under $100. New lunch boxes, with a variety of renderings are sold today for under $20.
Whether you fondly remember your first lunch box, or coveted one carried by a classmate, there are books, Websites and many sources of information for the collector interested in this intriguing hobby.