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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Disclaimer: The information in this section is not an official appraisal. Contact an appraiser directly to get the exact value of your lunch box.
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.
After metal was banned, new materials were used to make lunch boxes. Here's how manufacturing changed in the 80s up to the 2000s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Take a look at the best advertising lunch boxes released in the 1960s to the 1990s!
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!
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!
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.
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