PAIL-EOLOGIST: I've owned my own health club called Double D's for about 15 years. It is just a small mom-and-pop shop, but anyone who owns a business knows the stresses that come along with it. So about 10 years ago, a friend suggested I find a hobby. At the time I had one "Hee Haw" lunchbox, the one that I had used when I was going to school. It was orange and fun, and made me think of all the warm memories of childhood in New York. So I decided that I would start collecting them. Today I have 125 vintage lunchboxes that decorate my health club. Sometimes people drop by just to look at them.
HIP TO BE SQUARE: When my husband and I found out about the National Museum of American History's "Taking America to Lunch" exhibit [14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, 202-633-1000], we thought it would a real honor to have ours be a part of the collection. I donated a Bee Gees lunchbox, my prized "Hee Haw" box, Roy Rogers, "Star Trek" and Rambo. I also donated a plain blue box that parents who didn't want their kids saturated with media were probably attracted to.
OUTSIDE THE BOX: You really can't find the little metal boxes at garage sales anymore. The best places to find old-time lunchboxes are at antique stores or flea markets. If you are interested in collecting, expect to pay an average of $70 to $80 per box. But there are some that are so coveted that they fetch $200 to $300 and sometimes even more. I am sure you can get lunchboxes on eBay, but I never have. I think it is more fun to get out there and pound the pavement. I actually stopped collecting, but word is on the street and people still bring them to me. While I was on vacation recently, a nice woman dropped by and left me Flying Nun, Snoopy and the Partridge Family lunchboxes.
FAIR AND SQUARE: Lunchboxes hold a lot of nostalgia for baby boomers, in particular. They depict all of the great shows, music groups and cartoons that we grew up with. Early Thermoses had glass insulation, which is, of course, a no-no today. And that Rambo lunchbox was the beginning of plastic packaging. A hard plastic lunchbox could be made and assembled more cheaply, colored inside and out, and offered a greater promise of cleanliness, since the traditional metal box rusted. Plastic boxes could also be made by machine; metal boxes were cut from sheet steel, decorated and assembled by highly paid union workers.
NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH: My "Hee Haw" box is my absolute favorite, but I also like my Brady Bunch and Partridge Family boxes because they remind me of my favorite shows growing up. The one I would love to have is a Beatles lunchbox or a Bobby Sherman. Any of the boxes with a musical group would be great, because I don't think they made as many of them.
As told to Karen Hart
Hungry For More?
* Aladdin produced the first TV character lunchbox in 1950. It featured the first of the television Western heroes: Hopalong Cassidy, played by William Boyd.
* The first box marketed specifically to girls featured Annie Oakley (1955).
* Adm. Hyman Rickover, known as the father of the nuclear Navy, became incensed over technical details exposed in a 1960 Thermos box that featured four nuclear subs, a sub cross section and a detailed black-and-white photograph of a sub's interior.
* The Disney dome top lunchbox of a school bus (1961-1974) was the most successful, selling more than 9 million.
* In 1963, Thermos received a cease-and-desist order after it used without permission art from National Geographic magazine that depicted John Glenn in his space capsule.
* Richard Nixon was the only president to be featured on a metal lunchbox. His "we came in peace for all mankind" letter appears on the bottom of the 1969 box celebrating the moon landing.
* Thermos's 1972 domed doghouse lunchbox features Snoopy with a red cup in his paw. A few show Snoopy with a blue cup, increasing the value of these boxes.
* Mickey Mouse was the most widely used character on metal lunchboxes. Roy Rogers was second; Fred Flintstone, third.
Trivia courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.