So executives at Aladdin hit on an idea that would harness the newfound popularity of television. They lacquered lunch boxes with striking red paint and added a picture of TV and radio cowboy Hopalong Cassidy on the front.
The company sold 600,000 units the first year.
It was a major “Ah-ha!” moment, and a wave of other manufacturers jumped on board to capitalize on new TV shows and movies.
“The Partridge Family, the Addams Family, the Six Million Dollar Man, the Bionic Woman — everything that was on television ended up on a lunch box,” says Allen Woodall. He’s the founder and curator of the Lunch Box Museum in Columbus, Ga.
“It was a great marketing tool because [kids] were taking that TV show to school with them, and then when they got home they had them captured back on TV,” he says.
And yes, you read that right: There is a lunch box museum, right near the Chattahoochee River. Woodall has more than 2,000 items on display. His favorite? The Green Hornet lunch box, because he used to listen to the radio show back in the 1940s.
Cool Hunting Video: The World’s Largest Lunchbox Museum from Cool Hunting on Vimeo.
The new trend was also a great example of planned obsolescence, Woodall adds. Kids would beg for a new lunch box every year to keep up with the newest characters, even if their old lunch box (So long, Ariel!) was perfectly usable.
The metal lunch box craze lasted until the mid-1980s, when plastic (and for a short time, vinyl) took over. Two theories exist as to why.
The first — and most likely — is that plastic had simply become cheaper.
The second theory — possibly an urban myth — is that concerned parents in several states proposed bans on metal lunch boxes, claiming kids were using them as “weapons” to hit one another. There’s a lot on the internet about a state-wide ban in Florida, but a few days worth of digging by a historian at the Florida State Historical Society (thanks, Ben DiBiase!) found no such legislation.
Either way, the metal lunch box was out.
(Want to know more about that Golden Age of metal lunch boxes? Check out this episode of the Mystery Show podcast, that goes deep, deep down a lunch box-inspired rabbit hole.)
A Whole New World
The last few decades have brought a new lunch box revolution, of sorts. Plastic boxes begat insulated cloth sacks, and eventually, globalism brought tiffin containers from India and bento boxes from Japan. Even the old metal standby has seen a renaissance.
“I don’t think the heyday has passed,” says D.J. Jayasekara, owner and founder of lunchbox.com, a retailer in Pasadena, Calif. “I think it has evolved. The days of the ready-made, ‘you stick it in a lunch box and carry it to school’ are kinda done.”
The advent of backpacks threw the lunch box scene for a bit of a loop, he adds. Once kids started carrying book bags, that clunky traditional lunch box was hard to fit inside.
“But you can’t just throw a sandwich in a backpack,” Jayasekara says. “It still has to go into a container.”
That’s, in part, why smaller and softer containers have taken off — they fit into backpacks.
And don’t worry — whether it’s a plastic bento box or a cloth bag, lunch containers can still easily be plastered with popular culture.
“We sync with the movie industries so we can predict which characters are going to be popular for the coming months,” Jayasekara says. “You know, kids are kids.”