It’s that time of year again - Back to school! September ushers in all that is new - new clothes, new teachers, new friends. As summer days evolve into school days, let’s recall the legacy of the lunchbox.
The history of the lunch box mirrors American history. The earliest lunch boxes were circa 1900 metal pails or re-used biscuit, tobacco, or candy tins. From the turn of the century metal carry-alls that protected immigrant factory workers’ lunches to the post-war lunch boxes that accompanied the children of GIs to new suburban elementary schools in the late 1940s and 1950s, the lunch box represents the American experience.
Catering to its school age audience, the first modern, popular lunchboxes featured cartoon, television, and movie characters. Hopalong Cassidy was the first image on a lunchbox when Nashville’s Aladdin Company adhered a Hopalong decal to a traditional metal lunch box in 1950. Hopalong was the earliest image on a lunchbox, but in 1953, Roy Rogers became the first full printed lithographic image on a lunchbox.
Metal lithography, a redundant stamp printing process, was used for marketing images that appeared on canned food products and on metal picnic baskets that featured images of plaid textiles or woven basket reed. The metal lithographic production process used for lunchboxes is similar to the early 1960s reproduced images of Campbell’s Soup Cans by Andy Warhol.
The mid 1950s Disney character lunch box appealed to the oldest and youngest of lunchbox aficionados’ parents who grew up with Steamboat Willie cartoons and their baby boom children who dreamed of visiting California’s newest attraction, Disneyland. At $2.69, the Disney School Bus domed lunchbox was a pricey item in Universal’s 1956 product line. The yellow dome-shaped, metal lithographed Walt Disney School Bus lunchbox depicted a bus filled with Disney icons including Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio, Dumbo the Elephant, Minnie Mouse, Pluto and of course Mickey. Yet, this lunchbox sells today on the vintage market and online for nearly $500.
Of course, it commands its highest price on the resale market during Back to School week.
In the 1960s, sassy vinyl-over-cardboard Barbie lunchboxes enticed little girls in colors ranging from light pink to hot pink. By the 1970s, school kids knew the answer to the question: “Scooby Doo, Where are You?” as the ultra-popular lunchbox was a winner for its fun form that mimicked the cartoon’s highly recognizable Mystery Machine Volkswagen microbus. By the late 1980s, the lunchbox had evolved from a 1950s square metal carry-all hosting a PB&J sandwich to a molded plastic Cabbage Patch Kids container with a highly nutritious Reagan-era lunch: a can of New Coke and Pop Rocks.
Today’s lunchboxes address today’s concerns. Popular characters are still the rage like Bob the Builder or Dora the Explorer. The Built NY lunch bag is made of neoprene rubber and has insolated storage sections. It boasts a built-in placemat for those less-than-sanitary lunch tables or for eating on the run or in the car, both are indicative of our 21st Century culture.
Wondering which lunchbox I carried as a kid?
I carried a few different ones, but I remember my favorite one was a Snoopy and Woodstock domed lunchbox in bright yellow plastic with a red handle. Which lunchbox did you carry?
Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, award-winning TV personality, and TV talk show host, Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide. Dr. Lori is the star appraiser on the hit TV show, Auction Kings on Discovery channel. Visit Dr. Lori’s website, Facebook.com/DoctorLori, or call toll free (888) 431-1010.