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Old lunchboxes have potential to be valuable

September 1, 2012
Art & Antiques by Dr. Lori , The Inter-Mountain

It's that time of year again - back to school! September ushers in all that is new - new clothes, new teachers, new friends. As summer days evolve into school days, let's recall the legacy of the lunchbox.

The history of the lunchbox mirrors American history. The earliest lunchboxes were circa-1900 metal pails or reused biscuit, tobacco or candy tins. From the turn-of-the-century metal carryalls that protected immigrant factory workers' lunches to the post-war lunchboxes that accompanied children to new suburban elementary schools in the late 1940s and 1950s, the lunchbox represents the American experience.

Catering to its school-age audience, the first modern, popular lunchboxes featured cartoon, television and movie characters. Hopalong Cassidy was the first image on a lunchbox when Nashville's Aladdin Co. adhered a Hopalong decal to a traditional metal lunch box in 1950. Hopalong was the earliest image on a lunchbox, but in 1953, Roy Rogers became the first full-printed lithographic image on a lunchbox.

Metal lithography, a redundant stamp-printing process, was used for marketing images that appeared on canned food products and on metal picnic baskets that featured images of plaid textiles or woven basket reed. The metal lithographic production process used for lunchboxes is similar to the early 1960s reproduced images of Campbell's Soup Cans by Andy Warhol.

Disney Dudes

In the mid 1950s, Disney character lunchboxes appealed to the oldest and youngest of lunchbox aficionados - parents who grew up with Steamboat Willie cartoons and their baby boom children who dreamed of visiting California's newest attraction, Disneyland. At $2.69, the Disney School Bus domed lunchbox was a pricey item in Universal's 1956 product line. The yellow dome-shaped, metal-lithographed Walt Disney School Bus lunchbox depicted a bus filled with Disney icons including Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio, Dumbo the Elephant, Minnie Mouse, Pluto and, of course, Mickey. This lunchbox sells today on the vintage market and online for nearly $500. Of course, it commands its highest price on the resale market during the "back to school" season.

In the 1960s, sassy vinyl-over-cardboard Barbie lunchboxes enticed little girls in colors ranging from light pink to hot pink. By the 1970s, school kids knew the answer to the question: "Scooby Doo, Where are You?" as the ultra-popular lunchbox was a winner for its fun form that mimicked the cartoon's highly recognizable Mystery Machine Volkswagen microbus.

By the late 1980s, the lunchbox had evolved from a 1950s square metal carryall hosting a peanut butter sandwich to a molded plastic Cabbage Patch Kids container with a highly nutritious Reagan-era lunch: a can of New Coke and Pop Rocks.

Lunchbox Update

Today's lunchboxes address today's concerns. Popular characters are still the rage, like Bob the Builder or Dora the Explorer. The Built NY lunchbag is made of neoprene rubber and has insulated storage sections. It boasts a built-in placemat for those less-than-sanitary lunch tables or for eating on the run or in the car - both indicative of our 21st Century culture.

Wondering which lunchbox I carried as a kid? I carried a few different ones, but I remember my favorite one was a Snoopy and Woodstock domed lunchbox in bright yellow plastic with a red handle. Which lunchbox did you carry?

- Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author and award-winning TV personality Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide. Dr. Lori is the star appraiser on the hit TV show "Auction Kings" on Discovery channel. Learn about your antiques at, or call 888-431-1010.



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