Kids today carry their lunch to school in brown paper bags, insulated plastic sacks and even compartmentalized bento boxes. But for earlier generations, there was one dominant option: a metal lunchbox, usually decorated with characters from comic strips, movies or television. Picking out the perfect design for the school year was one of the rites of August, right along with getting new shoes and a haircut.

Today, those metal lunchboxes form a whole category of collectibles, with prices up to thousands of dollars. There’s also a brisk trade in reproduction boxes and in plain metal ones that you can decorate on your own.

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.

Metal lunchboxes went out of fashion and were even banned by some school districts in the 1980s, after a group of mothers in Florida campaigned to have them outlawed as weapons. Woodall laughs at that now. “Really, kids were banging them up to make sure they got new ones,” he says. “But they were banned in Florida, and then it went from state to state. The decline was so big that the manufacturers stopped making them.”

Today, metal lunchboxes are again being made, thanks to the popularity — and prices — of the vintage models. Some schools are happy to see kids using them, vintage or new, because they cut waste. The stiff sides protect food well — no more squished peanut butter sandwiches. And the containers are reusable indefinitely. Rust is the only worry, but it’s easy to prevent that simply by drying the lunchbox each time you wipe or wash it out. Vintage or reproduction lunchboxes also make great containers for all sorts of other things, from first aid kits to postcard collections.

For serious collectors who care about value, the big money is in designs that dovetail with themes that drive collectors to seek out items other than just lunchboxes. Collectors love Beatles memorabilia, so Beatles lunchboxes often go for $600 or more. Other popular themes are space exploration, westerns, Disney and “anything to do with fire,” Woodall says. But if you just want a colorful box with fun characters or words that somehow catch your fancy, you can get something good for $20 to $35.

As with any collectible, quality matters. Rust, scratches and dents reduce the price. But authenticity also matters, which is why Woodall says he knows of no one who restores beat-up lunchboxes. When the Smithsonian Museum of American History came calling and wanted to buy lunchboxes from him (he also donated many), curators sought out boxes that showed wear and were scribbled with kids’ names. “They wanted them as they were used, not new,” Woodall says.

Huber is a special correspondent who writes the How To column, which will return next week.


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