Have All The Lunchboxes Gone?
Copyright 2023 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo from the author.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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