Remember carrying a metal lunchbox to school? Typically we’d get a new one to start each school year, both because they got so much use and because we were drawn to the new designs and characters on them. Nowadays kids are used to thermal totes and plastic cases, but nothing beats the old-school styles.
Metal lunchboxes had a very practical beginning. They started out as more than what I remember, which was a box lithographed with characters like those from Peanuts, designed to carry a Twinkie safely off to school. They actually became necessary as a result of the American economy’s shift from agriculture to industry, beginning in the early 1900s. Those working on a farm could head into the farmhouse for lunch, but factory workers had to be able to take a lunch with them. Fast food was still an unknown so lunches were packed at home and taken to work.
The first known lunchbox was made of tin in 1902 and was constructed to resemble a picnic basket. The steel industry was booming, so it was natural that the boxes began to be made of this very durable material.
The earliest children’s lunchboxes were made in the 1920s. The first licensed character to appear on a lunchbox was Mickey Mouse in 1935. The first lunchbox with a character from a television show featured Hopalong Cassidy in 1950 and was manufactured by the Aladdin Company of Nashville. It was a blue and red steel box with a sticker applied on one side. In 1953, in order to compete with Aladdin, The American Thermos Company introduced a Roy Rogers lunchbox with lithographed designs on all sides on the box. Not to be left behind, other manufacturers quickly changed to the same method of decorating their boxes.
More emphasis was put on marketing with mass-produced lithographed lunchboxes. They featured the most popular themes of the time, whether it was a TV show, a band or a comic book character.
The first band to appear on a lunchbox was The Beatles in 1965. Other bands to appear over the years were the Partridge Family and, in later years, KISS.
Metal lunchboxes were banned from many schools in 1972 following a move by a group of Florida parents that were concerned about boxes being used in schoolyard fights. The last lunchbox to be made of steel was the Rambo box in 1985 made by KST. After that, lunchboxes were made of plastic and vinyl.
As a true vintage collectible and as a retro-inspired reproduction item, metal lunchboxes are popular again. And they’re not just to carry lunches anymore. These boxes can be used for storage around your house or garage. They can also be filled with small items to make a unique gift. Looking for an eye-catching centerpiece? Place an open lunchbox on your table and fill it to overflowing with something fun like flowers, candy or seashells.
Do you have any vintage or replica lunchboxes you’d love to show off?