You might say that the boomer era — in the 1950s through the 1970s — was the Golden Age of the Lunch Box. Lunch boxes first appeared in the 1800s when people could travel farther to get to work in factories and no longer went home for lunch. Various tin and metal pails or buckets were devised to carry a midday meal. The first vacuum flask — what we call a Thermos — appeared in 1904, but wasn’t a standard part of a lunch box until the 1940s.
Things started to change in 1935 when Mickey Mouse appeared on a lunch box, marking Disney as the first company to license a character for this purpose. For the most part, though, lunch boxes of varying shapes and sizes were carried by blue collar workers, and not necessarily by children. Episodes of The Honeymooners show Ralph Cramden toting the standard dome-topped lunch box to his bus driver job.
Everything began to change in the 1950s. As baby boomers began to go to school, lunch boxes for children entered the scene in a big way. At first it was mainly generic colors and patterns that adorned the sides of the now usually rectangular box. But as baby boomers got hooked on TV programs, it gave manufacturers the perfect outlet for producing all sorts of licensed merchandise, including lunch boxes. Dozens of companies entered the market, including American Thermos Company, Aladdin, Ohio Art, Landers, Fray and Clark, and Adco Liberty. Some had already been making lunch boxes for a decade or more, but now licensing gave them a renewed revenue stream. Among the first big hits was a Hopalong Cassidy box. Roy Rogers lunch boxes followed, as did Superman, The Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Davy Crocket. It wasn’t long before practically every popular TV show was represented by a lunch box.
As the Space Age captured the imagination of boomers and their parents, TV shows and movies reflected their hopes, dreams and fears. The characters from these shows and movies joined the Western stars and cartoon characters as decoration for the sides of lunch boxes, and sometimes, on the matching Thermos bottle that came with the box. Lunch boxes for generic space scenes as well as for popular programs like The Jetsons (1963) and Star Trek (1968) hit the stores.
The 1960s also saw lunch box imagery expand into the music realm, with lunch boxes for The Beatles (1965) and The Monkees (1967). The use of cartoon imagery never waned, and another lunch box first in the 1960s bore the likeness of a character; in 1962 a Huckleberry Hound lunch box became the first embossed design. The metal was stamped to produce a raised portion of the design, such as a cartoon character.
The 1970s continued the trend toward portraying TV shows and cartoon characters on lunch boxes. Everything from Josie and the Pussycats (1970) and Scooby Doo (1973) to Charlie’s Angels (1978) and The Six Million Dollar Man (1974) was being carried into classrooms by the last batch of boomers. The 1970s saw more plastic and vinyl lunch boxes, and the replacement of the glass-lined vacuum flask with a plastic liner.
Mister Boomer only had one lunch box in his school days, and it lasted from first to second grade. It was a red plaid design, a square metal box with a matching Thermos. Mister B recalls the inside was just big enough to hold the Thermos, a wax paper-wrapped sandwich, a couple of cookies and a piece of fruit, which was usually a banana, orange or apple.
On cold winter days sometimes Mister B’s mom would fill the Thermos with hot soup, but mostly it contained chocolate milk or, on occasion, Tang. Mister B didn’t have a strong opinion either way on carrying the box. He doesn’t recall a great many of his fellow students having the latest and greatest TV show or cartoon lunch boxes. Maybe time has erased the memory, or maybe his area wasn’t yet on the bandwagon.
One thing Mister B distinctly remembers is the sound of the glass liner breaking in the Thermos. He had a tendency toward not beng able to keep a Thermos bottle intact. A slight smack against a door, fence or desk seemed to be all that was necessary to hear the glass shatter, then fall into the little shards that sloshed around for the rest of the walk home. Mister Boomer broke three Thermos bottles in the course of a year and a half. Finally, his mom said it wouldn’t be replaced. Shortly after that, the box disappeared as well, replaced by the brown paper bag. By third grade Mister B and his siblings made their own lunch, and he continued to pack them in brown paper bags throughout his school years.
Today a large collector market has sprung up around the lunch boxes of our boomer youth. Don’t you hate it when the objects of your everyday life now command hundreds of dollars, and in the case of the rarest, north of a thousand? What’s worse is, you never kept any of those things, or your mom disposed of them at garage sales.
Did you carry a lunch box, boomers?