America's fascination with the school lunchbox

Story highlights

  • The lunchbox as been a staple for American schoolkids for more than 60 years
  • Mickey Mouse was one of the first licensed characters displayed on a lunchbox
  • "Hopalong Cassidy" lunchbox from '50s usually cited as first TV tie-in with lunchbox industry
Do you remember your favorite school lunchbox? It may have featured an image of your favorite cartoon character, band, movie or TV show. (Mine was a 1978 "Muppet Show" lunchbox with a Kermit the Frog thermos inside it.)
The lunchbox has been a key accessory for American schoolkids for more than 60 years, according to Peter Liebhold, a curator with the National Museum of American History. It's an American status symbol, too. "Today, if you travel to Target, Walmart or other back-to-school retailers, you will see kids and parents constructing their identity through lunchboxes (as well as clothes, backpacks and binders)," Liebhold noted in an e-mail.
The lunchbox as we know it can be traced back to 1935 when Geuder, Paeschke & Frey produced the first licensed character lunchbox with Mickey Mouse on it. But it wasn't until after World War II when the lunchbox entered its prime.
After the war, the economy, with a growing middle class, was robust, and consumers were willing to spend more money on all kinds of things, including lunchboxes. "Increasingly, identity in the postwar period was seen through consumed items so individuals were picky about what their lunchbox said about them," Liebhold said.
A small exhibition paying homage to this American icon is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington. Fans of the lunchbox will delight in the "Taking America to Lunch" display on the lower level. It includes 75 illustrated metal lunchboxes that tell the story of American pop culture. The exhibit also illustrates how lunchboxes changed over the years from plain utilitarian metal to fashionably themed containers.
Fans interested in a larger collection may want to consider a road trip to the Lunchbox Museum in Columbus, Georgia. Museum owner Allen Woodall Jr. claims it's the largest collection of school lunchboxes in the world, with some 2,000 pieces on display. (Ironically, Woodall, 78, never carried a lunchbox to school as a child. He kept his lunch in a brown bag.)
The Lunchbox Museum in Columbus, Georgia, claims to be the largest of its kind, with some 2,000 pieces on display.