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Lunch Box History

Alan's Guide to Lunch BoxesThe lunch box, also referred to as a lunch pail or lunch kit, is used to store food to be taken to work or school.  The concept of a food container has existed for a long time, but it wasn't until people began using tobacco tins to haul meals in the early 20th century, followed by the use of lithographed images on metal, that the containers became a staple of youth, and a marketable product.

The lunch box has most often been used by schoolchildren to take packed lunches, or a snack, from home to school.  The most common modern form is a small case with a clasp and handle, often printed with a colorful image that can either be generic or based on children's television shows or films.  Use of lithographed metal to produce lunch boxes in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s gave way in the 1990s to use of injection-molded plastic.

A lunch kit comprises the actual "box" and a matching vacuum bottle.  However, pop culture has more often embraced the singular term lunch box, which is now most commonly used.

David Shayt, curator of the National Museum of American History, pins the evolution of the lunch box as beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.  "Some of our earliest examples, from the 19th century, were woven baskets with handles. A meal would be wrapped in a handkerchief. Depending on your station, a fancy wooden box would be used by the wealthy," he says.  It wasn't possible to go home to lunch every day when more and more Americans were now working in factories and not on the farm, thus it was necessary to have something to protect and transport a meal in.

Lunch boxes have been manufactured using various materials.  Typically, children's school lunch boxes are made of plastic or vinyl, while adult workers' lunch boxes are commonly made of metal, such as tin or aluminum, due to the greater need for durability.  The aluminum variant was invented in 1954 by Leo May, a miner in Sudbury, Ontario, after he accidentally crushed his tin lunch box.

In 1935, Geuder, Paeschke and Frey produced the first licensed character lunch box, Mickey Mouse.  It was a lithographed oval tin, with a pull-out tray inside. It had no vacuum bottle, but did have a handle.

In 1950, Aladdin Industries created the first children's lunch box based on a television show, Hopalong Cassidy.  The Hopalong Cassidy lunch kit, or "Hoppy," quickly became Aladdin's cash cow.  Debuting in time for back-to-school 1950, it would go on to sell 600,000 units in its first year alone, each at a modest $2.39 USD.

While television was experiencing amazing growth during the 1950s, manufacturers saw a potential for sales.  Manufacturers grew to include ADCO Liberty, American Thermos (later King Seeley Thermos, or KST), Kruger Manufacturing Company, Landers, Frary and Clark (Universal), Okay Industries, and a number of other producers through the 1980s.

The first use of plastics was the lunch box handle, but later spread to the entire box, with the first molded plastic boxes produced during the 1960s. Vinyl lunch boxes debuted in 1959.

During the 1960s, the lunch box had few changes. The vacuum bottle included in them, however, steadily evolved during the course of the decade and into the 1970s. What was originally a steel vacuum bottle with glass liner, cork or rubber stopper, and bakelite cup became an all-plastic bottle, with insulated foam rather than vacuum. Aladdin produced glass liners into the 1970s, but they were soon replaced with plastic.

In 1971-72, a concerned group of parents decided that metal lunch boxes could actually be used as weapons in school-yard brawls.  With petitions signed, they marched to the Florida State Legislature, and demanded safety legislation be passed.  It eventually was passed, and other counties in Florida adopted this legislation, which eventually was accepted in other states.

The vintage era for lunchboxes is considered to be from 1950-1987.  After this time frame lunchboxes converted over to being plastic boxes.

Today, lunch boxes are generally made of vinyl, with foam insulation, and an aluminum/vinyl interior.  As a result, they're usually much better at retaining their temperature but are less rigid/protective.

Lunch box collecting is a popular hobby.  Many lunch boxes, including those from the 1950s and 1960s sell for hundreds of dollars, some even into the thousands of dollars.  In December 2003, a mint Isolina lunch box was auctioned for $11,500 at Chickens Go Moo, Inc. auctions.  With the 15% buyer's premium, the total price of this lunch box was $13,225.

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