History of Lunch Boxes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

The history of the lunch box begins with working-class citizens in the 19th century taking their food in metal pails or tobacco tins. From there, kids began to gravitate toward lithographed containers of their favorite cartoon characters. Today, lunch boxes are made from plastic or neoprene and have become a major force in the world of promotional products.

You most likely remember the lunch box you carried on your first day of school. With your awful haircut and missing teeth, you felt a tad cooler with your reusable lunch container featuring G.I. Joe or Barbie. Much like a concert t-shirt, this was a way for you to show your passion for your favorite characters.

When did the first lunch boxes appear? Why were they customized with movie and TV characters? Grab your food, find a seat in the cafeteria, and get ready to learn all about the history of lunch boxes!

Quote

The best thing in the world you can do is get a new lunch box. 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 with Allen Woodall of Metal Lunch Boxes

Hour Glass

History of Lunch Boxes Timeline:

A good lunch box has been a cafeteria staple since the 19th century. Take some time during your next meal to scroll through the most notable lunch boxes in history!

  • 1910

    Source: Randy Huetsch, Antique Advertising Expert

    Factory workers used tobacco or cigar tins to carry their lunches. As a result, suppliers like Crow-Mo Smokers received additional brand exposure.

  • 1920

    Source: smithsonianmag.com

    Lunch pails were sold for commercial use and came with matching vacuum bottles. The pails were often dome-shaped and had an unappealing, industrial appearance.

  • Mid-1920s

    Source: kidcrave.com

    Kids aspired to be like their working parents and bring their own lunch containers to school. The early models looked like picnic baskets and featured whimsical cartoons, such as this version from 1920.

  • 1930s

    Source: npr.org

    An electric lunch box came onto the scene during the Great Depression. This container was made from aluminum and came with a built-in plug and outlet.

  • 1935

    Source: learningliftoff.com

    Popular brands like Walt Disney got on board with the lunch box craze. Mickey Mouse became the first character to show up on the front of a metal lunch container.

  • 1950s

    Source: cookingchanneltv.com

    A surge of famous characters decorated the fronts of lunch containers. Some of the most popular were Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, and Howdy Doody.

  • 1957

    Source: greatestcollectibles.com

    Aladdin, a popular lunch box manufacturer, released their dome-shaped Buccaneer pirate container and matching Thermos. This lunch box was inspired by popular movies of the era like Peter Pan.

  • 1962

    Source: foxnews.com

    Barbie emerged as a popular character in the mid-1950s. Many metal lunch boxes, such as the one pictured here, were printed with the stylish Mattel icon.

  • 1965

    Source: fab4collectibles.com

    The Fab Four became the first band to decorate the front of a lunch box. Many other popular bands followed suit like The Rolling Stones, The Bee Gees, and KISS.

  • 1969

    Source: designobserver.com

    Aladdin celebrated Neil Armstrong landing on the moon with custom astronaut lunch boxes. The patriotic exterior shows images from the Apollo 11 space mission.

  • 1970s

    Source: pinterest.com

    Vinyl had a brief run as a popular material for lunch boxes. This material wasn’t very durable and would often destroy the food kept inside the container.

  • 1980s

    Source: cookingchanneltv.com

    Plastic lunch boxes featured images from popular movies and shows like Star Wars, The Jetsons, and Woody Woodpecker. One of the very first models showed the Peanuts having a picnic.

  • 1985

    Source: gizmodo.com

    Going out with a bang, Rambo became the last movie character to adorn a metal lunch box. This was the result of legislation that made these containers illegal in school cafeterias.

  • 1990s

    Source: kidcrave.com

    Thermos introduced popular lunch boxes with soft-sided padding. These were easy to stuff into backpacks when kids went to and from school.

  • Mid-2000s

    Source: stuckonyou.com

    People are always on the go and need to save space in their bags. Japanese-inspired Bento boxes are the perfect way to encourage balanced eating and cut down on Tupperware. 

  • 2012

    Source: qualitylogoproducts.com

    Often used in wetsuits, neoprene became a popular material for lunch boxes. This reduced condensation and made the bags easily washable.

  • 2018

    Source: gizmodo.com

    The world is always coming up with new designs for popular products. This slim lunch container molds to the shape of your sandwich, keeping everything nice and fresh. 

Working Until the Lunch Bell

In the 19th century, working citizens kept their meals in sturdy, heavy metal containers that could withstand the tough conditions in mines, construction sites, quarries, and factories. The working class would make the most out of their subpar wages by reusing the tobacco, cigar, or cookie tins they were already buying, and inadvertently, created accidental promos in the process. Lunch time was a chance for these companies to get advertising at no extra cost!

Image Source: Randy Huetsch, Antique Advertising Expert

According to antique advertising expert, Randy Huetsch, one of the largest tobacco companies in the country was Brotherhood Tobacco. At the time, there were many newly formed unions, such as the ones developed as the railroads were being built. Regardless of social stature, everybody enjoyed tobacco. The power of Brotherhood’s tins was their ability to unite the working man with his superiors. When the employees used them for lunch, the executives had a built-in conversation starter. It made any workplace stronger to have team chemistry, and these makeshift lunch boxes strengthened those bonds. As the name suggests, Brotherhood’s tobacco tins were able to fortify teams and help our nation progress forward in the process.

Image Source: Randy Huetsch, Antique Advertising Expert
Quote

There were a lot of clashes between the haves and the have-nots. The tobacco tins were a product that was binding the common folk with the executive team.

Randy Huetsch, Antique Advertising Expert

Source: thevintagenews.com

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

It wasn’t long before children emulated their hardworking parents and took their own lunch boxes to school. At first, they brought along the same tobacco tins and metal containers as their parents. However, by the 1920s, new designs were introduced and marketed for the first time as “lunch boxes.” Putting commercial lunch boxes on store shelves was a way to capitalize on a growing industry. For the first time, people could go to the general store and buy a container built specifically for their food.

Source: thevintagenews.com

Interestingly enough, this was at the same time general stores were getting rid of the tobacco tins. During World War I, tin wasn’t as accessible, which made it more difficult to use the material. In fact, many early advertising signs and custom tin items, like the tobacco containers, were repurposed and used as bullet casings and armor for the war.

Despite the tin shortages, kids still begged their parents for new metal lunch boxes, preferably the ones with colorful images. These containers were primarily printed by early promo companies, such as the ones based in Coshocton, Ohio, where metal lithography was a huge industry. Students brought them along to one-room schoolhouses across the country.

Quote

The metal lunch box was a good advertising tool because it was reusable and an easy item to carry around. They were extremely popular, many people wanted them.

Randy Huetsch, Antique Advertising Expert

Disney Dining

It wasn’t until the Great Depression that lunch boxes became major marketing tools. The first character to grace the front of a lunch box was Mickey Mouse in 1935. Milwaukee company Geuder, Paeschke, & Frey obtained licensing to print the famous mouse on their “Lunch Kit.” This lunch box was an enormous success and changed the design of future containers.

Source: liveauctioneers.com

As was the case for the picnic lunch boxes of the 1920s, Mickey Mouse was added to the tins through metal lithography. This was a stamp printing process typically used to print marketing images on canned foods. The tins would have to go through the machine several times, once for each color being printed. At first, the plates had to be made by hand, which was a long, tedious process. Eventually, the procedure evolved into the transfer process, which involved moving an image from paper over to the surface of a product. This was a crucial printing process for the future of promotional products, where graphics are often heat transferred onto an item.

Source: liveauctioneers.com
Fun Fact!

An original Mickey Mouse lunch box from 1935 is worth an estimated $1,300!

A Whole New World of Lunch Boxes

The popularity of the Mickey Mouse lunch box, as well as the culture-shifting effect of World War II, resulted in new lunch box designs. Many women joined the workforce, leaving kids with more independence and longer school hours. This even led to the National School Lunch Act in 1946, which made cafeterias commonplace in schools across the country. Due to the limited amount of resources following the war, people were looking for a durable metal lunch box that would last them and their kids for years.

The Golden Age of Lunch Boxes
The marketplace was wide open for promotional lunch boxes in the 1950s. Meanwhile, Nashville’s Aladdin International (not to be confused with the guy on the magic carpet) was on the verge of bankruptcy and needed a new product to keep them in business. At the time, they primarily sold gas lanterns, which were becoming obsolete due to more modern battery lanterns.

Source: gizmodo.com

With a complete turnaround from their original business model, Aladdin started selling metal lunch boxes decorated with pop culture icons. The Hopalong Cassidy version alone sold an estimated 600,000 in the first year, increasing viewership of the after-school special. This kicked off the Golden Age of Lunch Boxes with other popular TV and movie stars following, such as the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, The Brady Bunch, Indiana Jones, and Howdy Doody. Before Internet and social media, this was the perfect way for fans to show how much they loved their favorite shows. Not to mention, these lunch boxes completely saved Aladdin from going out of business.

One of Aladdin’s most popular designs was a school bus featuring beloved Disney characters, including Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Pluto, Minnie, and Mickey. This child-friendly lunch box was a bestseller for the company and cost only $2.39 each. Today, you’ll find it listed for anywhere between $300 and $500!

Tension from Thermos
Seeing the power of a good lunch box, the American Thermos Company started offering its own lunch boxes at the same time. The race was on, with the two companies trying to stay with the times and outdo each other with metal lunch boxes featuring a hit show, movie, or any other popular trend. Within the next decade, over 120 million lunch boxes were sold in the United States.

Source: Country Living Magazine

Thermos had a long-standing history of printing lunch tins, being responsible for the earliest metal containers on the market. However, they hadn’t yet tackled the new industry of customization with the same gusto as Aladdin. The competition inspired Thermos to create more innovative designs, such as a rock-shaped Flintstones lunch box, a purse-style bag, and futuristic boxes with bold prints.

Their Roy Rogers lunch box was the company’s most popular. You’re in luck if you happen to stumble upon one of these lunch boxes today. Over 2.5 million boxes were sold when it was first released, one of which is currently on display at the Smithsonian. In 2015, a lucky thrifter stumbled upon one for only $10 at a garage sale, but it has an estimated worth of over $250!

Did you know?

Thermos continues to dominate the market with approximately $39 million spent on lunch kits each year.

Early Advertising Lunch Boxes

The success of lunch boxes was difficult to ignore and major companies were looking to advertise with these lunchtime favorites. By the 1970s, Aladdin and Thermos started working with well-loved brands like McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and Frosted Flakes to print their iconic mascots and logos on promotional lunch boxes.

Take a look at some of the companies and products that found success advertising at lunch time!

The Rise of New Materials

Before the 1980s, adults and kids carried their lunches in tin containers. As times changed, so did the materials used to create lunch boxes.

A Ban on Heavy Metal
Metal lunch boxes continued to be popular with working-class citizens and young kids until the 1980s. However, there was growing concern about the safety of these containers. A group of angry mothers in Florida lobbied against their use in classrooms. They believed the metal boxes were dangerous and could serve as weapons in schools. The last metal lunch box ironically paid homage to that violence, featuring Rambo in all his action hero glory.

Put it on Vinyl
Vinyl was a much safer option, coming onto the scene in the late 1960s. These containers were often decorated with popular images like the Munsters, Barbie, Scooby Doo, and the Fonz from “Happy Days.” After a short amount of time, vinyl lost its appeal since it wasn’t sturdy and didn’t evoke the same emotional connection as a metal lunch box. In fact, there were only about 600 new vinyl designs introduced at the same time metal was getting phased out. Even more, an industry insider described vinyl as “a piece of garbage heat-sealed over cardboard.” Needless to say, this material quickly became the laughing stock of the school cafeteria.

Source: collecttoys.net

Print it on Plastic
By 1985, metal lunch boxes were completely discontinued, and plastic took over as it was less expensive to manufacture. Plus, it wasn’t considered as dangerous as metal and was a lot more durable than vinyl. The molded plastic was imprinted with a decal, making it easy to mass produce millions of these containers at lightning speed.

Plastic lunch boxes became popular since they were an easy way for kids to show their friends which shows they loved the most. Parents also had less concern about these containers being used as weapons. Many popular characters decorated the front including: the Cabbage Patch Kids, Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone, and Superman, to name a few.

The popularity of plastic continued through the 90s. Some of the favorites were the Care Bears, the Spice Girls, the Ninja Turtles, and of course, Star Wars. Thermos was the primary manufacturer of these lunch boxes, making an estimated $40 million a year in sales.

Source: starwars.com

A Safer Way to Eat

Plastic is no longer as commonplace as it used to be. Today’s lunch boxes are typically insulated and soft-sided. The primary reason is for the sake of food safety. BPA became a common concern among families, leading lunch box manufacturers to use safer materials like neoprene, canvas, or polyester. Not to mention, these were a lot easier to shove into a backpack. You can still find plastic lunch boxes on the market today, but the trend is shifting toward insulated, soft options.

Source: qualitylogoproducts.com
 Source: designwan.com

The History of Bento Boxes

In recent years, people have turned to trendy Bento boxes to carry their lunches to work and school. Why? The individual compartments help monitor portion control and encourage healthy, well-balanced eating.

 Source: designwan.com

Bento boxes originated in Japan during the 5th century and were made of plastic, wood, or metal. They were popular containers for men to bring along on fishing or hunting trips. After World War II, lunch became mandatory in Japanese schools and kids brought Bento boxes to the cafeteria. Today, Bento boxes are decorated with cartoon characters, animals, or flowers, and each comes with matching chopsticks, cups, and mats. These trendy boxes have traveled all across the world, becoming popular in the Philippines, Korea, and the United States.

In Japan, food is considered an art form, with each meal being carefully prepared. There’s an ancient Japanese proverb that states: “You can’t eat a painted cake.” The meaning is to not waste time fantasizing when you can make your dreams a reality. However, we’d like to think the saying holds weight when it comes to culinary masterpieces like this adorable Bento meal.

Quote

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

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

Lunch Lovers: Get to Know the Collectors

From the metal containers of the 1920s to the pop culture boxes of the 1950s, it’s not too difficult to find old-school lunch boxes today. In fact, all around the world there’s a community of people known as Boxers, lunch box enthusiasts who make it their mission to find the rarest, most special of all containers. There’s even an entire museum in Georgia that features over 2,000 lunch boxes!

Allen Woodall is the owner of this museum and has been collecting antique lunch boxes for over 30 years. He believes in their power as more than just marketing tools. According to this Boxer, your favorite lunch box sparks childhood memories and brings you back to feeling like a kid again.

Quote

Lunch boxes are little time capsules. They are such great marketing tools. 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

If you ever find yourself in sunny Georgia, be sure to stop by Allen’s treasure trove of metal lunch boxes!

Lunchbox Museum: Rivermarket Antique Mall 3218 Hamilton Road, Columbus, GA, 31904

Ready to stroll down memory lane?

Take a tour of Allen Woodall’s Lunchbox Museum!

The Value of Promotional Lunch Boxes

Today, lunch boxes remain popular and have the power to evoke feelings of nostalgia. Moreover, they are a welcomed promotional giveaway for any industry or event.

Lunch Boxes Are Always a Hit!
You want your promotional giveaways to spark conversation, and you’ll get that and more with promo lunch boxes. Just like the Brotherhood Tobacco tins of the 19th century, a lunch box unifies the carrier with the brand. This is why companies of all sizes benefit from printing their logos on these promotional items. In fact, Hit Promotional Products, a top-ranked supplier in the industry, distributes nearly 20,000 lunch boxes every year!

Quote

Packing your own lunch is an easy way to save money and stay healthy, which means your logo on a lunch box is the perfect way to stay top of mind with your health and price conscious customers.

Angie K., Territory Manager at Hit Promotional Products

Promos in Action

When we carry a cool lunch box, it helps us get more cred in the lunchroom. This mentality still exists across every industry and in every cafeteria. Recently, Bonnaroo, a popular four-day music festival in Tennessee, ordered lunch boxes with a psychedelic design to promote their festival. Anybody who received a VIP pass also received a complimentary metal lunch box. These promotional items were a reminder of the excitement these music lovers felt during the concerts, which in turn, encouraged them to come back again the following year.

Source: Sean Brickell, who co-authored The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes with Allen Woodall

Not only do lunch boxes make their way onto the festival circuit, they also have a place in the homes of hardworking parents. Melissa Kieling, the visionary behind PackIt, has found enormous success with her branded lunch containers. As a single mother with three kids, she wanted to invent an easier way to send her kids off to school with healthy meals. Fast forward to today and the trendy PackIt lunch boxes are flying off the shelves at Target, Wal-Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond, and The Container Store with roughly $7 million in revenue as of 2017.

Source: qualitylogoproducts.com
Quote

A gifted lunch box adds a bit of excitement for the person receiving it. People are trying to eat healthier and lunch boxes are the perfect conversation piece.

Melissa Kieling, CEO of PackIt

Your Logo at Lunch

The world of personalized lunch boxes has gone beyond just cartoons and TV characters. More companies than ever are advertising with personalized lunch boxes, and for good reason. Everybody loves a lunch box with a personal touch!

Stats for Success

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

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

The food storage industry is worth approximately $1.4 billion.

The Bottom Line

Whether it’s made from metal, vinyl, or plastic, a good lunch box sparks nostalgia, starts conversations, and makes a statement. It was put into practice in the late part of the 19th century and still exists to this day. If you want customers to remember your brand, let them take you to lunch. It’s a bit different than it was in the retro Fifties, and you might not bring a Batman container to your next lunch meeting, but the branding potential still has no limits!

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is a super cool Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. She’s a fan of diving into the history of some of the earliest promos on the planet. If you need her, you’ll find her buried in research, in the middle of a phone interview, or singing way off-tune in her office.

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”