Lunch boxes fetch major money – no baloney
Millennia have passed since early man hid and hauled grain and game in primitive carriers, most likely fashioned from grasses, leaves, animal hides or tree bark.
By the 20th century, that basic need to transport food was being met by … Hopalong Cassidy, the Jetsons and Barbie lunch boxes.
So deeply ingrained in the national psyche are these vividly branded repositories of sandwiches, cookies, apples and milk that the Smithsonian Institution is running dual lunchbox exhibits: “Taking America to Lunch,” opened last week at the National Museum of American History in Washington for an indefinite engagement. “Lunch Box Memories” has been traveling the country since 2002 – it is currently in Lexington, Mass. – and is booked into 2006 in an additional seven cities.
Serious collectors, who call themselves “boxers” and “paileontologists,” pay dearly for the rarest metal examples: last year, a rectangular 1954 Superman lunchbox sold for $13,225, and a rare, pristine oval 1935 Mickey Mouse lunch pail could fetch $7,000.
“It pushes so many buttons,” says David Shayt, curator of both exhibitions for the museum’s cultural history division. “It’s TV, it’s childhood, it’s school, it’s food, it’s mom, and it’s loss – above all, because so many people lost theirs.” Shayt contends his own early lunchbox, emblazoned with nuclear submarines and a diagram showing how one worked, inspired him to become a Marine and later a historian of technology.
To be sure, lunch boxes – or kits or pails – were not just for children. The iconic black metal box, with a vacuum bottle tucked in its vaulted top, has been a longtime staple of the hardhat lunch break.
Kids and boxes
But the juvenile boxes generally captivate collectors. And for many children, they became early tribal artifacts, says Allen Woodall, owner of the Lunch Box Museum in Columbus, Ga., and co-author of “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes,” in which he and Sean Brickell write: “They were our endorsement of something cool. And by association, we, too, informed the world we were part of a select group. With our lunch boxes, we celebrated all forms of pop culture including TV shows, cartoons, movies, comic strips, science, music acts and mythical figures.”
Like all hot collectibles, price is governed by supply, demand and condition, the last in this case being the most problematic. Lunchboxes often took a beating at the hands of their young owners. Moreover, they frequently were pitched out in June and replaced in September by models hyping the latest hit movies and pop stars.
Showing up at school with a passe lunch box was a major social blunder, says Woodall, who toted his own sandwiches in brown bags during the 1940s. By the 1970s, he eagerly paid $5 and $10 at flea markets for two lunch boxes celebrating his childhood radio heroes, Dick Tracy and the Green Hornet, and a passion was born: “I really loved the pop art on them. It was just so great.” Today he owns 2,100 lunchboxes and about 1,800 vacuum bottles, several dozen of which he has given, sold or lent to the Smithsonian.
Walt Disney launched the first “character” lunchbox in 1935 by putting Mickey Mouse on the lid of an oval carryall; it had an interior pie tray but no bottle. Only a handful of these tins, made for just two years by Geuder, Paeschke & Frey, of Milwaukee, have survived, which may account for the $5,000 they can fetch, says Woodall.
It was television – not movie cartoons or the funny papers – that really drove the golden age of vivid metal lunchboxes, which spanned four decades.
In 1950-’51, TV cowboy Hopalong Cassidy, who licensed hundreds of products, granted rights to Aladdin Industries of Nashville to put his decal on the outside of blue and red lunchboxes. Inside was a beautifully lithographed vacuum bottle. More than 600,000 units galloped off the shelves. Two years later, rival cowboy Roy Rogers debuted on 2 million boxes made by the American Thermos Bottle Co.
But in the world of serious collectors, Superman reigns supreme. First depicted by ADCO Liberty in 1954 as “The World’s Greatest Adventure Character” doing battle with a robot, he went on to appear on boxes produced by two other companies.
Over the next 30 years, Aladdin and Thermos dominated the market, which saw some 450 images and patterns on millions of boxes: Miss America. The Flying Nun. Pele. Rat Patrol. Davy Crockett. Howdy Doody. Mork & Mindy. Strawberry Shortcake. The Bee Gees. Care Bears. The Berenstain Bears. Star Wars. Star Trek.
When it stopped
The list seemed endless. But end it did, in 1985, with a gun-toting Sylvester “Rambo” Stallone having the dubious honor of gracing the last metal boxes, made by Thermos.
Some collectors blamed parents whose little darlings were injured when lunchboxes became weapons in a schoolyard brawl; an urban legend persists that the Florida legislature actually banned them in the 1970s, although no law has been found to confirm the tale.
But it was mostly a matter of economics and hygiene that gave rise to soft vinyl, hard plastic and insulated fabric lunch boxes and bags, says Shayt. “Steel was too costly. You had to roll it, stamp it, lithograph it off-site, roll the edges, put on handles and clasps.”
Such a costly process does have its upside, says Woodall. “You can’t counterfeit lunchboxes. All that lithography and embossing required giant roller presses.”
Price of authenticity
Rising prices do not seem to have deterred collectors.
At least three ’54 Superman lunchbox sales have gone into five figures, says Bryan Los of Holyoke, Mass., a collector who runs the Web site http://www.lunchboxpad.com.
A prototype for Aladdin’s 1950 Hopalong Cassidy box and bottle brought nearly $10,000 says a MastroNet vice president, Brian Marren of Willowbrook, Ill.
“I think what will happen as other fields get too expensive – baseball cards are now in six figures – people will find lunchboxes. They are great to display and have great graphics.”