All Packed Up and Ready to Go: A Brief History of the Lunch Box

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

September always makes me think of going back to school, and one fond memory is taking my own special lunchbox.

According to an article from Collectors Weekly,  the lunch box as we think of it today was born in 1935 when a company from Milwaukee, Wisconsin called Geuder, Paeschke, and Frey licensed the likeness of a new cartoon character named Mickey Mouse for the top of its oblong-shaped “Lunch Kit.”

Above you can see one of the original Mickey Mouse lunchboxes and to the right is a page from the patent issued to Phillip Kempter of Milwaukee Wisconsin, assignor to the Geuder, Paeschke, and Frey Company, November 26, 1929 for their lunch kit product.

Of course, before the licensed character lunch boxes came to the market, there were many ways that people took their lunch to school or work. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has an exhibit called Taking America to Lunch. Their display includes about 75 illustrated metal lunch boxes and beverage containers dating from the 1890s through the 1980s.

The online exhibit states that “since the mid-19th century, miners, factory workers, dock hands, and other laborers have used sturdy dinner pails to hold hard-boiled eggs, vegetables, meat, coffee, pie, and other hardy fare. In 1904, "thermos" vacuum bottles began keeping workers' drinks hot or cold until the noon whistle blew.”


The modern era of licensed-character marketing began in 1950, when Aladdin Industries of Nashville released a lithographed steel lunch box and matching thermos featuring the TV cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. According to the Henry Ford museum, The Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox was a hit, with unit sales increasing in just one year from 50,000 to 600,000.

Three years later, American Thermos of Norwich, Connecticut came out with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunch boxes. Picture above is a Standard Electric Supply Co. catalog from around 1955. Among all the electric kettles for sale were a few of the Thermos-brand lunch containers. Wikipedia's article on lunchboxes states that “more than 120 million metal lunch boxes were sold between 1950 and 1970, often accompanied by a Thermos, initially made of metal and glass, and later plastic.”

The Smithsonian online exhibit highlights some of the boxes from the 1960s and 1970s, which featured music groups, movies, tv shows, and other popular culture icons. One such lunch box is the Barbie vinyl one shown to the right, produced by Thermos in 1962.

Today, some of these vintage lunch boxes can sell for thousands of dollars. In 1999, a 1954 Superman lunch box, made by Adco Liberty was sold at auction for $11,500.

Maybe I should have held onto my old Alvin and the Chipmunks lunch box!

Linda Gross is the Reference Librarian at Hagley Museum and Library