Dining with Antiques – Metal Lunch Pails

Containers such as this Green Turtle cigar tin, circa the late 1800s, often doubled as a lunch pail, as they were light and sturdy.

The first lunch pails were simply wooden or tin buckets covered with a folded cloth on top to keep out road dirt and flies. Those buckets accompanied field hands, mill workers and school children for hundreds of years, usually filled with cold meat, rustic bread and chunks of cheese.

This changed in the 19th century when tobacco, coffee and candy tins appeared. They were plentiful, sturdy and re-usable. And best of all, they came with lids. Covered containers allowed coal miners to keep their food dust-free. And, the light-weight metal was easy for children to carry. So, these packaging tins, sporting designs and advertising logos, often doubled as colorful lunch pails. It is probably because they were in daily use that so many of these tins still survive today and they remain collectible, but examples that are in dent- and rust-free condition are hard to find. And, unfortunately, reproductions and counterfeits abound.

It was also in the 19th century when metal lunch pails evolved into containers with different chambers, lift-out trays and separate sections for liquids. Hungry miners often carried a heavy pail with a removable upper canteen for coffee or soup, a removable cup and a lower area large enough to carry a hearty meat pie. Called a Cornish pasty in England and simply a pastie in the United States, the crusted meat pies (containing diced beef, potato and onion) could be eaten with no utensils.

An example of a 19th-century miner’s lunch pail.

This model had a separate upper canteen for liquids and a removable cup on top.

In the early 20th century, small enameled lunch pails called gamelles carried soup in the bottom and had an upper tray that could keep other items dry, such as crackers, pâté and fruit. These graniteware “mess kits” had lids that latched firmly in place and came in a variety of colors. Mostly originating in France, they could also be found in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Vintage gamelles make a lovely display in a country cupboard, especially when grouped in varieties of green, red, blue, yellow, tan and black.

This small French enameled lunch pail, circa 1920, is called a gamelle.

Soup went in the bottom with a separate upper tray to keep bread dry.

Sandwiches as we know them today have Dutch origins and can be traced back to the 17th century, when taverns cut thin slices of meat and laid them on top of buttered bread. They began as bar food and slowly evolved into late night snacks. The actual word “sandwich” dates to around 1762, named after the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu. Purportedly, he liked the fact that a piece of salt beef held between two slices of bread could keep his hands from getting greasy while he worked at his desk or played cards.

Sandwiches finally became a European lunch staple in the 19th century when the emerging working class needed fast, portable meals and bakers began to sell pre-sliced bread. A sandwich first appeared in an American cookbook in 1840.


Among the first lunch boxes to feature a commercial character is this 1935 Mickey Mouse tin lunch kit with wire handle.

The sandwich also resulted in an evolution of the lunch pail into a flatter lunch “kit” that was the forerunner of today’s lunch box. The first kit to advertise a popular commercial character was a 1935 oval tin featuring a lithograph of Mickey Mouse, along with other characters from Walt Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” cartoons. It had a removable section called a pie tray, where delicate desserts could be stored away from heavier items like apples and hard-boiled eggs. In good condition, this rare tin kit can sell today for $2,000.

Today’s vintage recipes include two lunch pail staples. One is the very first sandwich recipe to ever appear in an American cookbook. The second is a modern adaptation of the meat pie (or pastie) that continues to be found in miners’ lunches throughout England, Ireland and the United States.

Ham Sandwiches (from “Directions for Cookery,” by Elizabeth Leslie, 1840)

Cut some thin slices of bread very neatly, having slightly buttered them; and, if you choose, spread on a very little mustard. Have ready some very thin slices of cold boiled ham, and lay one between two slices of bread. You may either roll them up, or lay them flat on the plates. They are used at supper or luncheon.

Meat Pastie

2 refrigerated pie crusts
1 pound round steak
1 large onion, chopped fine
2 large potatoes, peeled and chopped
Salt, pepper, butter
1 egg, beaten

Divide each crust into two parts and roll each part into a round circle (making 4 circles)
Pound the round steak with a studded meat tenderizer. Cut into small cubes.
At one side of each circle, layer meat, then potatoes, then onions.
Add salt and pepper. Dot with butter.
Fold the empty side of the dough over the filling.
Wet the edges, crimp and seal tightly.
Brush the top of the dough with the beaten egg. Prick the top with a fork.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour, or until crust is browned.

Makes 4 pasties. Great for picnic lunches.

Variation: Some old recipes add a chopped up rutabaga to the internal mixture of meat and vegetables.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books. “Dining with Antiques” is an ongoing feature in which she highlights usable collectible dinnerware, along with vintage recipes.


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