DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, June 17, 2013

Out to Lunch: A Brief History of Metal Lunch Boxes

Historians say you can learn a lot about a people and their culture by studying what they ate. But, as a current exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History proves, you can also tell a lot about a culture by viewing what they carried their food in.

Fittingly installed outside the main cafeteria at the museum is a collection of about 75 classic American metal lunch boxes from the mid- 19th Century until the 1980's.  Before their meal, older visitors can work up an appetite by taking a nostalgic trip down lunchtime memory lane and hear fellow visitors say "Hey, I had that one."

When America was primarily an agricultural society, there was little need for boxes to carry lunch in. Farmers and their helpers could simply return to their homes for a noontime meal before returning for more afternoon work.

But after the Civil War, as the nation became more and more industrialized, workers began carrying their lunch to work in small, plain metal buckets since they now worked too far away from their homes to break for a meal. About 100 years ago, as more and more students began attending schools, mothers began sending their lunches in empty decorated tobacco or cigar tins. The lunch boxes were joined in 1904 by their partner, the metal Thermos vacuum bottle which could keep drinks hot or cold.
First they were for adults ...

... then reused tobacco and cigar boxes for kids ...

... and finally TV and cartoons.

In the 1950's, the advent of television changed the look of the student lunch box. Studios discovered the idea
of using the metal boxes to give exposure to the TV programs aimed at young audiences. The lunch box shifted from a mere conveyance into a personal story teller. Historians point to this popular item as one of the beginnings of a sales market targeted exclusively to young people. Since westerns were a staple of this era, cowboy and western lunch boxes - Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone - were extremely popular.

In the 1960's, companies, anxious to continue sales, expanded lunch box scenarios to include music groups (like The Beatles) and athletes (like Mickey Mantle).  Girls also became a prime target with countless Barbie variations. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, older students could demonstrate their hipness by carrying lunch boxes featuring pop art and psychedelic designs. The Cold War (Get Smart, the Man from Uncle, and other spy and combat themes) were popular. By the 1970's, movie blockbusters like Star Wars ruled the lunch box field.

But in the mid-1980's, the metal boxes were replaced with ones constructed by less costly synthetic materials, which also didn't rust and were easier to keep clean. The time of the metal lunch box was over for all but collectors and exhibits of historical artifacts like the one here at the museum.

Tales,Tidbits, and Tips
If you would like to learn more about the lunch boxes on display, you can read the article "The History of the Lunch Box" which appeared in The Smithsonian magazine by clicking here. To learn about collecting vintage lunch boxes, click here.

Blog Archive

Popular Posts