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A History of Lunch Boxes, from the Vintage Black Metal Box to Today

Get ready to *unpack* the evolution of lunch boxes — they’ve been on quite a journey!

Maria Bailey · 19 days ago

  • cooking
vintage black lunch box

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Your lunch box can tell a lot about who you are and what you’re into. Whether it’s adorned with your favorite stickers, favorite cartoon characters, or it's just your favorite color, a cool lunch box can be a conversation starter in the cafeteria.

That hasn’t always been the case, though. Lunch boxes have come a long way since they first became a thing back in the 19th century. Back then, they needed to be extra sturdy and practical to endure the perils of a worksite so that working men could enjoy their lunches (unscathed and un-smooshed). Because who wants a squashed lunch? Especially when working extra hard in the mines or on the railway tracks. 

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It wasn’t long before the trend caught on, and kids who wanted to emulate their dads started requesting their lunches be packed in metal lunch boxes, too. Cookie and tobacco tins were often recycled for storing kids’ lunches. It wasn’t until 1902 when the first commercial lunchbox was released, decorated with scenes of children playing.

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The first kids' lunch box as we know it today — shiny, colorful, and decked out with characters — didn't appear until 1935. One guess as to who was on it? That's right, one of the world’s most famous (licensed) characters, Mickey Mouse. The lunch box was a four-color lithographed oval tin — simple in design but influential in impact.

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During the 1950s, Aladdin Industries established itself as one of the most prominent creators of lunch box art. The company created the first children’s lunchbox created on a television series called Hopalong Cassidy — and it was a hit! It would go on to sell more than 600,000 units in its first year alone — the height of the lunch box industry. 

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Gift of Aladdin Industries (through Lillian B. Jenkins) via National Museum of American History.

This major “Ah-ha” moment saw countless other lunch box manufacturers capitalize on new TV and movies. Just check out the Lunch Box Museum (yes, that’s a thing), which has a collection of 3,500 metal boxes and their matching thermos. 

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National Museum of American History

During the 1960s and early 1970s, more affordable vinyl lunch boxes made an appearance on the cafeteria scene, but not for long. Described by the industry as “a piece of shower curtain plastic, heat-sealed over cardboard,” very few survived the school year, much less lasted long enough to be put into a lunch box museum in our time. The short-lived but much-loved Barbie lunch box was especially popular.

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Metal lunch boxes continued to dominate until the 1980s. Not-so-fun fact: Did you know metal lunch boxes were once illegal? It's true! The snack-bearing metal boxes were classified as weapons after a group of moms lobbied against them, stating kids were swinging them at their fellow peers. The last mass-produced metal lunch box was produced in 1985, and molded plastic lunch boxes eventually took over.

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1998 saw the reappearance of new metal lunch boxes — featuring designs such as Godzilla and Hot Wheels — but they were met with a lackluster response. Aladdin Industry, once an industry leader, stopped making lunch boxes altogether.

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Can you guess which metal lunch vessel stood the test of time and is still being sold today? If you answered Thermos, you are correct! Using vacuum insulation, the company has been keeping our soups and hot drinks warm for generations — since 1904, to be exact.

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Photo: bentokidslunch

While the lunch box craze is not what it used to be — it has evolved. Kids these days are no longer sticking their lunches in a box and carrying them to school. Instead, they’re putting them inside their backpacks — hence the advent of soft, insulated lunchboxes that are easy to pack. The last few decades have seen quite the evolution of lunch boxes in different forms, from insulated boxes — or lunch bags — that keep lunches cool and fresh to tiffin containers originating from India and bento boxes — featuring different compartments — from Japan (thanks, globalism). 

Our guess is it’ll only be a matter of time before the next lunchbox craze — and we’re here for it!