The earliest metal lunchboxes, from the late 1800s, were utilitarian containers for factory and mine workers, or repurposed tins that once held tobacco or other products. Walt Disney came out with a Mickey Mouse lunchbox in the 1930s but only for a couple of years. Metal lunchboxes didn’t take off as a school-kid staple until the 1950s, after Aladdin Industries began making boxes that featured Hopalong Cassidy, a cowboy in movies and the first TV westerns, according to a buying guide published on eBay.
Today, eBay serves as the premier marketplace for vintage lunchboxes, but you can also find them at garage and estate sales and at stores that specialize in collectibles from the 1950s on. The Lunchbox Museum in Columbus, Ga., which claims to have the largest collection in the world, and Clarke’s Collectibles and Lunchbox Museum in Nice, Calif., both sell boxes that duplicate what’s in their permanent collections.
“These lunchboxes bring back memories,” says Allen Woodall, owner of the Georgia museum and co-author of “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes” (Schiffer, $29.95). It’s one of at least five books on this niche, an indication of how popular the lunchboxes have become. “They’re like time capsules,” Woodall says. “People see them and might remember the one they carried in school, or they see a character they remember and then a big smile comes on their face.”
Because kids gravitate toward designs featuring the most popular entertainment figures, vintage lunchboxes track popular culture through the decades. “Hopalong Cassidy” (a TV show from 1952-54) gradually yielded to “Wagon Train” (1957-65) and then “Bonanza” (1959-73). There were Barbie lunchboxes for girls and G.I. Joe lunchboxes for boys, boxes with photographs of real astronauts and characters from “Lost in Space” (1965-68).
“They’re a very pop culture kind of thing, with many different genres: Saturday morning cartoons, Marvel comics,” says Jake Lefebure, a longtime collector who runs the Design Army graphics design firm in the District. “I have some that are battle kits. One is all about making metrics cool: ‘The Exciting World of Metrics.’ I’m sure kids got beat up for taking that to school.”
Most lunchboxes were rectangular, but there were also dome-top boxes with storage space for a Thermos bottle in the lid. A dome-top box painted to look like a yellow school bus with Walt Disney cartoon characters peeking out of the windows was the most popular lunchbox ever, according to the eBay guide, though the specific characters changed over the years.