Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Antiques: Collectible Lunch Boxes

Aug 09, 2011 03:59PM ● By Anonymous
And what kind of containers do you use? If you labored in the fields during the 1700s you might have wrapped your sandwich of bread and cheese in a cloth napkin and placed it with a stoneware jug of cider in a basket. If you were a factory worker in the late 1800s you would have brought your midday meal packed up in a tin pail. Either century, the simple fact that you were bringing your lunch to work signified you were “working class” unable to either take the time to return home for a hot meal or to spend the money to eat in a tavern or restaurant.

While the long lunch hour, complete with wine and gourmet entrée, is still associated with the lifestyle of a successful executive, many folks pack their lunches in the interest of health and efficiency by both pre-selecting healthy portions and utilizing break times for exercise and errands. An insulated nylon lunch sack is a popular choice along with various plastic containers to transport the sandwich or salad. Nowadays various other items may include carrot sticks, yogurt, cookies, or almonds, often already packaged in sizes with lunch or snack time in mind.

The school child of the early 20th century, however, most likely brought their peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in wax paper packed inside a covered lunch pail, if they didn’t walk home for lunch. Perhaps it was even carried and placed inside a biscuit tin or tobacco tin. (Everything usable was re-used for another purpose, what we now call recycling). In 1902 the first true children’s lunch tin was created, shaped like a picnic basket, it was decorated on the sides with lithographed pictures of children playing.

In 1935 a marketing genius realized the potential for promoting a popular product or entertainer on the surface of a lunch container. Manufactured by a Milwaukee, Wisconsin company called Geuder, Paeschke, and Frey, this ancestor of today’s collectible lunch boxes featured the likeness of a new cartoon character named Mickey Mouse lithographed on the top of its oval metal container and licensed in collaboration with the Disney Company. This first Disney character lunch container had no thermos but it did have a slide-out tray. A cross between a lunch pail and what would become a lunch box, a loop of wire served as both seal and as a handle. Find one of those early Mickey Mouse lunch containers from 1935 and you will easily pay a minimum of $7,000 for the privilege of owning one.

A number of other manufacturers gradually followed suit in subsequent decades, licensing various popular Disney cartoon characters as well as storybook and television characters to decorate lunch boxes. Owens Illinois produced lunch boxes with Pinocchio and Snow White in the late 1930s and 40s, while a West Orange, New Jersey metal stamping outfit, ADCO Liberty, manufactured in 1954 what was to become a very desirable lunch box—Mickey Mouse on one side and Donald Duck and his nephews on the other. In late 1956, Disney turned over the lucrative license to make its lunch boxes to Aladdin. Currently owned by Seattle-based Pacific Market International (PMI), who purchased Aladdin in 2003, Aladdin still makes Disney lunch boxes and thermoses today.

Westerns were popular on television during the 1950s and cowboys were popular on lunch boxes. American Thermos, based in Brooklyn, New York, introduced the first fully lithographed steel lunch box and Thermos vacuum bottle with the image of western star Roy Rogers. They made nine styles of Roy Rogers’s lunch boxes between 1953 and 1957. Meanwhile, Aladdin jumped into the cowboy act by creating Hopalong Cassidy lunch boxes.

The space age came into full force in the 1960s and, thematically, lunch boxes that feature either the family of the future—then The Jetsons, or the crew from Star Trek were popular then and valuable now. Aladdin industries made a steel dome Jetsons’ lunch box which can sell for as high as $1,700, if mint with the original thermos. Given the preponderance of Trekkies, the 1968 Aladdin steel dome Star Trek lunch box has been sold to devoted fans for as high as $3000. The pop culture of the 1960s and 70s also included vinyl boots and shocking pink along with bright orange and purple. Vinyl lunch boxes that featured pop stars including The Beatles and The Monkees were valued by “Flower Children” as being perfect receptacles for their lunches and prized possessions. Vinyl (thin plastic over cardboard) is not a very durable material and thus vintage lunch boxes with pop icons are rare and desirable.

Molded plastic boxes that featured The Transformers, Barbie, and Wonder Woman were all popular with youngsters in subsequent decades. Today young adults look back wistfully at those old lunch boxes that turn up at yard sales, symbolical of their childhood.

There are many price guides/reference books on the subject of collectible lunch boxes. It is evidently a subject that fascinates many collectors. You can start a collection with just a few dollars or begin collecting those boxes that sell for hundreds and thousands. A good book to start with is Lunchbox: Inside and Out by Jack Mingo and Erin Barrett, published in 2004 and available in paperback.



Editor-in-Chief Nadja Maril answers readers’ questions in her blog, “All About Antiques,” at If you have a question related to this column or a previous column, email her at A nationally known author, appraiser, and former antiques dealer, she also invites readers to send photographs and suggestions for future columns to 929 West St., Suite 208A, Annapolis, MD 21401.