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When Was the Lunch Box Invented? A History of Lunch Boxes

Alyssa Mertes

Published: April 14th, 2022

You probably had a special lunch box you carried in elementary school. With your awful haircut and missing teeth, you felt a little cooler with G.I. Joe or Barbie by your side. Much like a graphic t-shirt, your lunch box was a way to show your passion for your favorite movies, TV shows, and pop culture figures.

It's not like lunch boxes have been around forever. Hop in the DeLorean to explore the fascinating history of lunch boxes!

Quote

The lunch box is a reflection of your personality. They're popular because even if you hate school or work, you like lunch.

Sean Brickell, co-author of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes

Hour Glass

History of Lunch Boxes Timeline

We have been carrying our lunches to school and work since the 19th century. Check out this timeline to see the evolution of lunch boxes, from rusty metal tins to the stylish containers used today!

  • 1910

    Tobacco tin Source: Randy Huetsch, Antique Advertising Expert

    Tobacco, cigar, and cookie tins became a popular way to bring lunch to work. As a result, brands like Crow-Mo Smokers would receive free advertising without even trying!

  • 1920

    Black lunch box Source: smithsonianmag.com

    No more tobacco tins! American workers could buy official lunch boxes with the same industrial look. These metal boxes were marketed to men and women in the workforce who needed somewhere to keep their Thermoses or vacuum insulated bottles.

  • Mid-1920s

    lunch container Source: https://www.thevintagenews.com

    Kids started bringing lunch boxes to school. One of the most popular designs was from the Ohio Art Company. It was a cute picnic basket with a lithographed design of children playing on front.

  • 1930s

    Electric lunch box Source: npr.org

    An electric lunch box was available in stores during the Great Depression. This aluminum container could reheat leftovers thanks to the built-in plug and outlet.

  • 1935

    Walt disney lunch box Source: learningliftoff.com

    Lunch boxes were more popular than ever before! Disney even got on board with the craze by releasing their own line. Mickey Mouse was the first cartoon character to show up on the front of a metal lunch container!

  • 1950s

    Hopalong cassidy lunch box Source: cookingchanneltv.com

    Following in Disney's footsteps, a surge of famous characters were printed on the front of lunch boxes. Some of the most popular in this decade were Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, and Howdy Doody.

  • 1957

    Aladdin lunch box Source: http://www.greatestcollectibles.com

    Aladdin was about to go bankrupt until they started making lunch boxes. Check out this pirate lunch box, which was inspired by The Buccaneer, a popular movie at the time starring Charlton Heston.

  • 1961

    fab four lunch box Source: https://www.etsy.com

    One of the most famous lunch boxes of all time is this Disney school bus. It was released by Aladdin and cost $2.39, which today would be about $22.

  • 1962

    barbie lunch box Source: foxnews.com

    Girls across the United States became obsessed with Barbie dolls. As a result, the stylish Mattel icon was printed on a ton of branded merchandise including backpacks, gym shoes, and metal lunch boxes.

  • 1965

    fab four lunch box Source: fab4collectibles.com

    The Beatles became the first band to decorate the front of a lunch box. Many other musicians followed including The Rolling Stones, The Bee Gees, and KISS. However, it's the Beatles lunch box that's worth the most today - an estimated $1,600.

  • 1969

    neil armstrong lunch box Source: designobserver.com

    Aladdin celebrated Neil Armstrong landing on the moon during the Apollo 11 space missions with these galactic lunch boxes. It was the first time a historic moment was captured on the front of a lunch box.

  • 1970s

    wonder woman Source: pinterest.com

    Vinyl was briefly used to make lunch boxes. This material was soft, but it wasn't very durable. It would also sometimes destroy the food kept inside, making it a running joke in the history of lunch boxes.

  • 1985

    Rambo lunchbox Source: https://gizmodo.com/

    Legislation was passed that made metal lunch boxes illegal in school cafeterias. Rambo went down in a blaze of glory as the last movie character to decorate the front of a metal lunch box.

  • Late 1980s

    Peanuts lunchbox Source: http://www.cookingchanneltv.com

    By the late 1980s, plastic lunch boxes became popular. Plastic was much safer than metal and more durable than vinyl. One of the very first plastic lunch boxes was printed with characters from the Peanuts.

  • 1990s

    Simpsons Source: kidcrave.com

    Thermos introduced lunch boxes with soft-sided padding. The idea was to make it easier for kids to stuff their lunch boxes into their backpacks for school.

  • 1970s to 1990s

    Crush lunchbox Source: https://www.etsy.com/

    Restaurants, diners, snack brands, and others advertised with promotional lunch boxes. These were made from metal or plastic and were embossed or screen printed with the company's name, logo, mascot, or slogan.

  • 2000s

    Neoprene lunch box

    For the most part, adults use lunch bags instead of boxes. Neoprene is a popular material since it's water-resistant and easy to clean.

  • Mid-2000s

    slim lunch container Source: https://www.stuckonyou.com.au

    People are always on the go and need to save space in their bags. Japanese-inspired Bento boxes are a good solution! These boxes not only encourage balanced eating, but also cut down on the need for storage containers.

  • Late 2000s

    Slim lunchbox Source: https://www.brit.co

    Lunch box design was changing! Take for instance this slim container, which molds to the shape of your sandwich. It keeps the bread and all of the ingredients nice and fresh.

  • 2021

    LunchEaze container Source: https://www.luncheaze.com/

    Do you want to eat soup for lunch, but don't have access to a microwave? LunchEaze should be your new best friend! Their boxes are battery-powered and can be automatically heated or cooled. As a bonus, they can also connect to Bluetooth!

What Did People Use Before Lunch Boxes?

In the late 19th century, Americans carried their lunch in any container they could find lying around. It could be a metal bucket, a brown paper bag, or most commonly, a leftover tobacco, cigar, or cookie tin.

brotherhood tobacco Source: Randy Huetsch, Antique Advertising Expert

Tobacco tins were popular lunch boxes from the late 1800s to the 1940s. The working class liked these metal containers since they could withstand the brutal conditions in mines, construction sites, quarries, and factories.

By World War II, tobacco tins were no longer being made. The country needed the metal to craft equipment, armor, and bullet casings for the war. It was time for new lunch boxes!

Quote

Metal tobacco tins were good advertising because they were reusable and easy to carry around. They were extremely popular, and many people wanted them.

Randy Huetsch, Antique Advertising Expert

When Was the First Lunch Box Invented?

lithography metal lunch box Source: https://www.worthpoint.com

The first official lunch box was invented by the Thermos Bottle Company in 1920. Before then, men and women in factories would use any industrial container they could find to carry their meals, including tobacco tins!

lithography metal box Source: https://www.worthpoint.com

Thermos's lunch box was made from metal and had a dome-shaped roof and leather carrying handle. It latched in the front with a giant clasp and was subject to rusting after repeated use. Overall, it really wasn't all that great at keeping food cold.

lithography metal box Source: https://americanhistory.si.edu

The Ohio Art Company took things to the next level. Their lunch boxes were shaped like picnic baskets and were decorated with metal lithography. They were the first to advertise lunch boxes to kids. It's a market that's still viable to this day!

lithography metal box Source: https://americanhistory.si.edu

When Did Lunch Boxes Become Popular?

The lunch box really found its stride in the mid-1950s. Credit goes to two companies - Aladdin and Thermos. They changed lunch boxes forever by printing TV and movie characters on the front. The world hasn't gone back since!

Do you want to see the best vintage lunch boxes? Check out some of the most popular ones released in the 50s and 60s!

Hopalong Cassidy Lunch Box

The first lunch box released by Aladdin was printed with Hopalong Cassidy. An estimated 600,000 of these lunch boxes sold in the first year alone, increasing viewership for the after-school special.

Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox https://www.equip-bid.com

Disney School Bus Lunch Box

One of Aladdin's most popular designs was a school bus filled with Disney characters. This metal lunch box was a bestseller and is worth between $50 and $150 today.

School Bus Lunch Box https://www.rubylane.com

Roy Rogers Lunch Box

You're in luck if you find a Roy Rogers lunch box. It's worth an estimated $250! Over 2.5 million Roy Rogers lunch boxes were sold when it was first released, so you have a good chance of hunting one down!

Roy Rogers Lunch Box Country Living Magazine

Lone Ranger Lunch Box

Hi-ho, Silver! In 1955, kids couldn't get enough of The Lone Ranger. The lunch box released the same year was a bestseller and is now worth about $1,250.

Roy Rogers Lunch Box https://www.workandmoney.com

Howdy Doody Lunch Box

Go to the circus by carrying a Howdy Doody lunch box. These vintage lunch boxes were released in 1954 and now sell for about $1,790.

Howdy Doody Lunch Box https://www.ebay.com

Dick Tracy Lunch Box

Dick Tracy was a police detective in a comic strip. He became even more popular with a TV series in the 1950, which inspired Aladdin to create these collectible lunch boxes.

Dick Tracy Lunch Box https://lunchbox.collectionhero.com/

Rocky and Bullwinkle Lunch Box

Now here's something you'll really like! These Rocky and Bullwinkle lunch boxes, released in 1962 by Thermos, are a must for any vintage collector.

Rocky and Bullwinkle Lunch Box https://www.hakes.com

Star Trek Lunch Box

Live long and prosper! The prosper part is easy if you find this Star Trek lunch box from 1968. It's worth about $1,500!

Star Trek Lunch Box https://www.workandmoney.com/

The Munsters Lunch Box

Do you collect vintage lunch boxes? You can't overlook this spooky lunch box inspired by The Munsters. It was released by Thermos in 1965, and today is worth anywhere from $500 to $2,000.

The Munsters Lunch Box https://www.etsy.com

The Jetsons Lunch Box

Get on your rocket to view this vintage Jetsons lunch box! Released in 1963 by Aladdin, the box was printed with the entire Jetson family. It's now coveted by collectors since it goes for as much as $1,700.

The Jetsons Lunch Box https://americanhistory.si.edu

Disclaimer: The information in this section is not an official appraisal. Contact an appraiser directly to get the exact value of your lunch box.

Did you know?

Aladdin wasn't always known for lunch boxes. The company started off selling gas lanterns, but on the verge of bankruptcy, made the switch to metal lunch boxes to stay afloat.

Why Were Metal Lunch Boxes Discontinued?

Metal lunch boxes were discontinued in 1985. A group of angry parents in Florida lobbied against their use in schools, believing they could be weapons. Ironically, the last metal lunch box ever made was printed with Rambo, an action hero known for his violent behavior.

Rambo lunch box Source: https://www.liveauctioneers.com
Rambo lunch box Source: https://www.liveauctioneers.com

After metal was banned, new materials were used to make lunch boxes. Here's how manufacturing changed in the 80s up to the 2000s.

Vinyl Lunch Boxes (Late 1980s)

Lunch boxes were briefly made from vinyl in the late 1980s, but this material quickly became the laughing stock of the food world. An industry insider even described it as "a piece of garbage heat-sealed over cardboard." Only 600 designs were created before vinyl lunch boxes disappeared from stores.

Vinyl Lunch Boxes

Plastic Lunch Boxes (1990s)

Plastic lunch boxes were popular in the 1990s. Some of the favorites at the time were the Care Bears, the Spice Girls, the Ninja Turtles, and Star Wars. Thermos was the primary manufacturer of plastic lunch boxes, making an estimated $40 million a year in sales.

Plastic Lunch Boxes

Neoprene Lunch Bags (2000s)

Today's lunch boxes are insulated and soft-sided. Neoprene is a popular material since it's water-resistant, free from BPA, and easy to shove into a backpack. It also keeps the food inside cold for a longer period of time, especially if you use an ice pack.

Neoprene Lunch Bags

What is a Bento Box?

Bento Box

Inspired by Japanese Bento, or shidashi, a Bento box is a container that contains multiple compartments. You can keep dips in one section, veggies in another, and your main meal in the largest area of the box.

Japanese Bento

Since the 5th century, Bento boxes have been a traditional part of Japanese culture. Men loved using them on fishing or hunting trips, and women would pack lunches inside for their kids to bring to school. Most of the time the boxes came with chopsticks.

It didn't take long for Bento boxes to become a trendy way to carry lunch all over the world. You can use one to maintain portion control and eat healthy, well-balanced meals.

Do People Collect Lunch Boxes?

collection http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

Lunch box collecting is a hobby shared by hundreds of nostalgic Americans. Known as Boxers, this community has made it their mission to find the rarest vintage lunch boxes on the planet. The more retro, the better!

collection http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

Allen Woodall is one of these collectors! He has been collecting antique lunch boxes for over 30 years and even has an entire museum in Georgia for all of his finds.

If you ever find yourself in sunny Georgia, be sure to stop by Allen's treasure trove of lunch boxes. You can see over 2,000 lunch boxes from very decade.

Watch this video for a tour of the Lunchbox Museum in Georgia!

Quote

Lunch boxes are little time capsules. In the 50s, the kids were taking the shows to school with them for goodness sake! They bring back wonderful memories.

Allen Woodall, Owner of the Lunchbox Museum

What is the Most Valuable Lunch Box?

Valuable Lunch Box https://www.liveauctioneers.com

The most valuable lunch box for collectors is the Superman Lunch Box from Universal. In 1954, this lunch box flew up, up, and away from the competition, becoming one of the favorites of the decade. Today, you could sell a 1954 Superman lunch box for as much as $16,000!

Valuable Lunch Box https://www.liveauctioneers.com

How Lunch Boxes Were Used in Advertising

McDonald's, Hostess, Coca-Cola, Frosted Flakes, and many other brands got in on the lunch box hype. These containers were embossed with mascots, logos, or slogans, and fans couldn't get enough!

Take a look at the best advertising lunch boxes released in the 1960s to the 1990s!

Hostess Lunch Box https://blog.kitchenstuffplus.com

Hostess Lunch Box

Campbell's Lunch Box https://lunchbox.collectionhero.com

Campbell's Lunch Box

Fritos Lunch Box http://blog.ciachef.edu

Fritos Lunch Box

Hot Wheels Lunch Box https://www.youtube.com

Hot Wheels Lunch Box

Tootsie Pops https://lunchbox.collectionhero.com

Tootsie Pops Lunch Box

Coca-Cola Lunch Box http://www.colacorner.com

Coca-Cola Lunch Box

Disneyland Lunch Box http://www.buzznet.com

Disneyland Lunch Box

National Airlines Lunch Box www.ebay.com

National Airlines Lunch Box

McDonald's Lunch Box https://www.pinterest.es

McDonald's Lunch Box

Rice Krispies Lunch Box https://blog.kitchenstuffplus.com

Rice Krispies Lunch Box

USPS Lunch Box https://www.worthpoint.com

USPS Lunch Box

Frosted Flakes Lunch Box https://blog.kitchenstuffplus.com

Frosted Flakes Lunch Box

Bonnaroo Lunch Box The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes

Bonnaroo Lunch Box

Quote

Lunch boxes are not really a way to stimulate more sales, but to also increase the coolness factory of your company.

Sean Brickell, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes

Why Do People Use Lunch Boxes?

2 lunch bags https://www.liveauctioneers.com

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you should use insulated lunch boxes to "keep food fresh and protect from foodborne illnesses." If you're not careful with your food in transit, you may accidentally ingest harmful bacteria like salmonella or E.coli.

Choose a lunch box that you love! It could be your favorite color, a bag decorated with sequin unicorns, or a retro style printed with a cartoon character. As long as your food is at the right temperature, the sky is the limit!

2 lunch bags https://www.liveauctioneers.com

Stats for Success

Stats 1 icon

Approximately 18 million kids in the U.S. bring a lunch box to school.

Stats 2 icon

120 million lunch boxes were sold in the United States in the 1970s.

Stats 3 icon

An estimated 49% of people bring their own lunches to work.

Stats 4 icon

The food storage industry is worth approximately $1.4 billion.

The Bottom Line

People will always love showing off their interests, and there's no better way than with a cool lunch box. No shame if you still carry your Batman lunch box from when you were a kid. As long as you're not using it as a weapon, a lunch box could be a great way to show off the things you love!

Quality Logo Products are experts on all things printed and promotional. Let our team of awesome, incredibly good looking, and fun promo nerds help you select awesome promotional swag today!

4 random promtional products 4 random promotional products tablet
Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.

References

1. Dr. Lori, Tulsa World, "Vintage lunch boxes can cost a pretty penny"

2. Atlas Obscura, "Lunch Box Museum"

3. Culinary Lore, "First Popular Character on Kid's School Lunch Boxes?"

4. Kovel, Ralph, Forbes, "Let's Do Lunch Boxes"

5. Adams, Tony, Ledger-Enquirer,"Allen Woodall finds a new home for his Lunchbox Museum"

6. Lunchbox.com, "A Brief History of the Lunch Box"

7. Sacco Dowd, Brooke, Kid Crave, "History of Lunchboxes"

8. Gunderson, W. Gordon, United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, "National School Lunch Act"

9. Bramen, Lisa, Smithsonian, "The History of the Lunch Box"

10. Verderame, Lori, Lower Providence Patch, "Value and History of Old Lunch Boxes"

11. Lou, Lily, Paste, "This is What Americans are Doing During Their Lunch Breaks"

12. Pinsker, Beth, Time, "Would You Spend $60 for Your Kid's Lunch Box?"

13. Sushia, "The Origin of Bento Boxes"

14. Buck, Stephanie, Timeline, "The Controversial History of the Bento Box"

15. Srivastava, Snehal, Oaktown Outlook, "Get Snackin'! A Quick Timeline of the Lunchbox"

16. Funding Universe, International Directory of Company Histories, "Thermos Company History"

Omoth, T. (2020, February 3). Lunch Boxes So Valuable You'd Never Treade Them for Your Buddy's Twinkies. Retrieved from, https://www.workandmoney.com/s/valuable-lunch-boxes-1d5ea8d287444f7f

Blakemore, E. (2018, August 22). Nine of the Most Collectible School Lunch Boxes, 1935 to Now. Retrieved from, https://www.history.com/news/nine-of-the-most-collectible-school-lunch-boxes-1935-to-now

Lin, S. What is Bento? Breaking Down the Bento Box. Retrieved from, https://www.allrecipes.com/article/what-is-bento/

Chemical Safety Facts. Keeping Lunch Cool: The Chemistry of Lunch Boxes. Retrieved from, https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/keeping-lunch-cool-the-chemistry-of-lunchboxes/