David Shayt, curator of the National Museum of American History, pins the evolution of the lunch box as beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. ome of our earliest examples, from the 19th century, were woven baskets with handles. A meal would be wrapped in a handkerchief. Depending on your station, a fancy wooden box would be used by the wealthy, he says. It wasn't possible to go home to lunch everyday when more and more Americans were now working in factories and not on the farm, thus it was necessary to have something to protect and transport a meal in.
Lunch boxes have been manufactured using various materials. Typically, children's school lunch boxes are made of plastic or vinyl, while adult workers' lunch boxes are commonly made of metals, such as tin or aluminium, due to the greater need for durability. The aluminium variant was invented in 1954 by Leo May, a miner in Sudbury, Ontario, after he accidentally crushed his tin lunch box.
In 1935, Geuder, Paeschke and Frey produced the first licensed character lunch box, Mickey Mouse. It was a lithographed oval tin, with a pull-out tray inside. It had no vacuum bottle, but did have a handle.
In 1950, Aladdin Industries created the first children's lunch box based on a television show, Hopalong Cassidy. The Hopalong Cassidy lunch kit, or "Hoppy," quickly became Aladdin cash cow. Debuting in time for back-to-school 1950, it would go on to sell 600,000 units in its first year alone, each at a modest $2.39 USD. Aladdin Industries moved to Nashville, Tennessee from its home in Chicago.
While television was experiencing amazing growth during the 1950s, manufacturers saw a potential for sales. Manufacturers grew to include ADCO Liberty, American Thermos (later King Seeley Thermos, or KST), Kruger Manufacturing Company, Landers, Frary and Clark (Universal), Okay Industries, and a large number of other producers through the 1980s.
The first use of plastics accounted for the lunch box handle, but later spread to the entire box, with the first molded plastic boxes produced during the 1960s. Vinyl lunch boxes debuted in 1959.
During the 1960s, the lunch box had few changes. The vacuum bottle included in them, however, steadily evolved during the course of the decade and into the 1970s. What was originally a steel vacuum bottle with glass liner, cork or rubber stopper, and bakelite cup became an all-plastic bottle, with insulated foam rather than vacuum. Aladdin produced glass liners into the 1970s, but they were soon replaced with a basic plastic.
In 1971-72, a concerned group of parents decided that metal lunch boxes could actually be used as weapons in school-yard brawls. With petitions signed, they marched all the way to the Florida State Legislature, and demanded safety legislation be passed. It eventually was passed, and other counties in Florida adopted this legislation, which eventually was also accepted in other states.
The vintage era for lunchboxes is considered to be from 1950-1987. After this time frame lunchboxes converted over to being plastic boxes.
Today, lunch boxes are generally made of vinyl, with foam insulation, and an aluminum/vinyl interior. As a result, theye usually much better at retaining their temperature but are less rigid/protective.
Lunch box collecting is a popular hobby. Many lunch boxes, including those from the 1950s and 1960s sell for hundreds of dollars, some even into the thousands of dollars. In December 2003, a mint Isolina lunch box was auctioned for $11,500 at Chickens Go Moo, Inc. auctions. With the 15% buyer's premium, the total price of this lunch box was $13,225.
A Superman DVD set was released in a case resembling a tin lunchbox, albeit notably smaller.
A Nintendo DS starter kit was released in a case resembling a tin lunchbox with New Super Mario Bros. graphics.
Health concerns came to light in August 2002, when the Center for Environmental Health discovered that many popular vinyl lunch boxes contained dangerously high levels of lead. Many, though not all, were pulled from the shelves.
In 2001, most major manufacturers began testing their lunch boxes for lead levels, remedied the issue, and labeled their boxes as lead free.
Bento - Japan
Tiffin-wallah and Dabbawala - India
^ The Ultimate Collection of Classic Lunchboxes; When Superman Went to School
^ "Out to lunch". Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal, December 2008.
^ Superman lunchbox auctioned
^ Lead in vinyl lunchboxes
^ Testing lead in vinyl lunchboxes
Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Lunch boxes
Center for Environmental HealthLead in lunch boxes press release, Aug 2005.
Creative, inspirational and healthy lunchbox ideas
Resource for vintage lunch boxes from the 1950s through the 1980s
Informational source for vintage metal lunch boxes from the 1950s - 1980s
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