Where Have All The Lunchboxes Gone?

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2023 by Sara Etgen-Baker

Photo from the author.
Photo from the author.
As August draws to a close, school buses are back on the roads, blackboard rails have chalk dust in them again, and back-to-school shopping is pretty much wrapped up. But as I walked the aisles of notebooks, pencils, and backpacks last week, there was one item that seemed to be missing from the store shelves. I'm talking, of course, about the metal lunchbox.

I'm sure I'm showing my age, but when I walked to school (uphill, both ways), my books were carried loosely in one hand while my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, potato chips, and cookies, were packed safely away in a tightly clasped, rectangular metal lunchbox that I carried in the other hand.

For me, the end of summer was a sad time. At once, an end came to all-day frolicking through the neighborhood with my friends, riding my bike until dark, jumping rope and playing hopscotch to my heart’s content, and spending countless hours inside the nearest air-conditioned building—the Nicholson Memorial Library. But the saving grace was an August trip to the neighborhood five-and-dime store to pick out a new lunchbox for the school year. No decision was more important, for the lunchbox I chose said a lot about who I was and who I aspired to be.

Whether your interest was television, music, sports, movies, or comics, you could find a lunchbox that proudly proclaimed your allegiance in four-color pressed metal. Most boxes came with a matching Thermos for keeping eight ounces of either hot or cold liquid. Many a lunch period was spent looking at all six sides of the box, admiring the artwork that adorned the armor of lunchtime sustenance.

Although the lunch pail has been around since the late 1800s, it wasn't until 1935 that the first marketing genius thought to appeal to kids by pasting Mickey Mouse's picture on a metal box. Still, the lunchbox as we know it didn't surge into popularity until the early 1950s. Branded lunchboxes really took off, launching a heyday that lasted more than 30 years, paying tribute to cultural icons from Sleeping Beauty to Holly Hobbie, from Annette Funicello to Wonder Woman — and darn near everything in between.

New manufacturing processes during the mid-1970s gave way to injection-molded plastic boxes decorated with only one decal and flimsy vinyl boxes that fell apart a month into the new school year. Finally, during the mid-1980s, the lunchbox disappeared entirely from mainstream culture, followed soon after by the introduction of plastic lunch tubs, only to be replaced by unimaginative zippered nylon bags.

I fondly remember the metal lunchboxes of my youth—the durable and practical containers that carried my lunch one year and paper dolls and doll clothes the next. They’re like an old song taking me back in time recalling school days, my favorite lunchtime foods, my classmates and friends as well as my cherished TV personality or movie hero. With their vibrant images, those boxes reconnect me to the times and places of my childhood—my challenges, my dreams, my heroes and heroines, along with the fads and fantasies of my youth, a time when I began to define my choices, my ideas, and myself.
So, where have all the metal lunchboxes gone? They haven’t vanished entirely! You can still purchase one on eBay, through various collector groups, and some other e-tailers on the Web. What's more, a few years ago, the Smithsonian deemed the lunchbox popular enough to merit its own special display. How cool is that?

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