Everyone remembers what lunchbox they carried in grade school, according to my cousin, who had a Barbie box. The choice was one of the only truly crucial decisions left up to a child in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s probably why lunchbox salespeople called their store displays “whine racks.”
The first of the decorated lunchboxes was introduced in 1950. It was a red or blue box with a decal depicting Hopalong Cassidy on the side. It cost $2.39, which would have bought a lot of paper bags in those days, but within a year or two, lunch kits were an industry, with commissioned artwork for both the box and the thermos bottle inside. TV and movie stars, cartoon characters, dolls and toys, rock bands and folk heroes: More than 450 subjects ended up on the boxes between 1950 and 1980. The most ephemeral captured the rise of such fads as UFOs, surfing, and Flower Power.
Lunchboxes honored the fleeting interests of schoolchildren year in and year out. Today, they are sorted and categorized just like coins or stamps. Having been produced for a nation of eight-year-olds, they are collected by people who remember living in that nation.
The most popular box of all time was an upright “dometop” decorated to look like a school bus filled with Disney cartoon characters. Nine million were sold from 1961 to 1973. Manufacturers liked such perennial subjects because movie and television tie-ins were far more risky. The Beatles lunchbox was a hit, of course, and so were “Star Trek” and Star Wars boxes, but kits for such short-lived shows as “It’s About Time” made it to the market only after the programs had been canceled. And carrying a remaindered lunchbox has never been cool. In fact, lunchboxes prove that no one is too young to be cool—or at least to want to buy something in that pursuit.
Today’s busy parents are more inclined to hand over lunch money than to pack a lunch, but the golden age of the lunchbox is long since over anyway. Steel lunchboxes, which featured the most striking illustrations, petered out in 1987. According to parents and school administrators, there were children who recognized that any piece of metal with a handle constituted a weapon. Lunchbox fights became so commonplace in the early 1970s that steel kits were banished from schools in one state after another.
Lunchboxes were specifically designed to be banged up, scratched, and scraped; the sandwich and chips inside were what mattered. As with any object meant to withstand abuse, condition is essential to determining today’s value. A lunchbox in mint condition is often worth 10 times more than a bruised one of the same design.
Hopalong Cassidy (1950): Red background with decal, fair condition, $87.
Beatles (1965): The faces of the four lads, mint, complete with manufacturer’s sticker and pamphlet inside thermos, $1,375.
Lost in Space (1967): With a fanciful illustration even for a lunchbox, good, $299.
Speed Buggy (1974): Mod design, very good, $52.