The Lunchbox

A look into the century-long design history of everyone’s favorite meal transportation system


Do you remember your first lunchbox? Our kids love and appreciate hand-me-downs but the one item we splurge on every fall is a new lunchbox. They just do not look or smell good after the school year and summer camps (although one of their discarded boxes is currently in our office fridge). I hate to brag but I do tend to keep my eye on lunchbox trends. The majority of the kids attending the girls’ elementary school are carrying L.L.Bean cooler bags; those who want to fit their curated bento boxes will go for a more oversized insulated bag, but then there are the kids that prefer a classic box covered with characters from movie or television shows.

Let’s get into the history. So where did the lunchbox come from? In the early 1900s, kids in rural areas needed to bring their lunch with them to school since walking back home to eat was not an option due to the distance. These children would wrap their food in cloth or oil paper and use empty tobacco or coffee tins for fresh-picked fruit, cheese, and/or nuts. Often simple store-bought lunch pails or paper sacks were used to store and transport the food.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that lunchboxes really made a splash. During this time, television and movie companies licensed their images to cover the tops and sides of both rectangular and domed lunch boxes. The boxes were often made of metal and sold with a matching thermos to hold soups or drinks. One of the biggest lunchbox manufacturers was Nashville-based Aladdin Industries. The company had already been making metal-dome boxes used by miners, factory workers, and dock hands.

These metal vintage licensed lunchboxes can fetch high prices on the secondary market. Nostalgia plays an important role for many lunchbox collectors; finding a lunch box from childhood brings back memories, and sometimes that comes with a big price tag. Beatlemania hit the nation hard in the 1960s, and true fans will pay thousands for a lunch box with a desirable Beatles image. Many television shows bring in high prices as well: most recently, a Superman lunchbox from 1954 sold for over $18,000.

Metal lunch boxes dominated the school lunch scene from the 1950s to the 1980s. Rambo was the last metal lunchbox made. It is said that the heyday of the metal lunchbox ended due to a group of mothers in Florida who claimed the boxes were dangerous and could be used as weapons at school. The more likely reason for the change in materials is that plastic was cheaper than metal. The 1980s were dominated by plastic lunchboxes advertising literally anything and everything. My brother had a Transformers lunchbox, and I had a blue Care Bears box that often smelled like a half-eaten apple and bologna sandwich. There isn’t another meal that has received as much cultural attention regarding its transport as lunch.

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