Vintage 1970s Lunch Boxes Revisited: When Pop Culture Ruled the Playground
By Maribeth Keane and Lisa Hix
For kids in the ’70s, the cartoon characters and pop stars on their metal lunch boxes were more important than the sliced apples and PB&Js inside. In fact, the coolness of your lunch box could determine your social status for the whole year. In this interview, painter and graphic designer Dee Adams explains how lunch boxes affected playground politics when she was a kid, and how she puts her collection of vintage metal ones to use in a think-outside-the-lunch-box way. To learn more about Adams, visit her blog or Flickr page.
The most popular lunch boxes for kids in the ’70s and ’80s were the ones that wouldn’t get you beat up in school. It was fine to go to school with a lunch box for a popular TV show, such as the ones from my childhood like “Speed Buggy,” “The Flintstones,” or “The Incredible Hulk.” But you wouldn’t want to carry something like “The Waltons” because that was just not cool.
In the ’70s, you also had music groups like the Osmonds on lunch boxes. Bee Gees lunch boxes were popular to own. However, you would never have wanted to go to school with the Maurice Gibb one because he was the least attractive brother of the group. Everybody loved the Bee Gees, but Maurice was not the cool Gibb.
Basically, it was a question of what would your friends approve of, what could you walk around with that showed you were “in the know”—did you carry the latest Muppets box or the proper Superman one? The hottest Saturday morning cartoons were usually the easiest things for boys to get away with. Girls tended to stick with Disney, and even basic patterns. In the ’70s, there were also lunch boxes that had psychedelic colors—no specific character or event, just the feel of the ’70s with all these bright, flowing colors.
Then, in the ’80s, you could find neon pink and orange in geometric shapes. Kids would let you slide by during lunch or in the hallway with those, whereas you couldn’t show up with the wrong TV show or the wrong music artist or something that was way before your time. If you had a lunch box handed down from an older sibling, and it was from the wrong era: Not cool. You’d get beat up on the way to lunch and then made fun of because your parents couldn’t afford to get you a new lunch box.
Collectors Weekly: How often did you get a new lunch box to keep up with the cool kids?
Adams: I had this really devious scheme. I would pick out one that I wanted and make sure that it would only last me through half of the school year. Then I’d have to ask for another one because tragically somebody bent my lunch box or threw it down the stairs or something happened—by my own hand, of course. It was a way that I could ensure I’d always have a nice lunch box.
I liked keeping my stuff in decent condition. I knew a lot of kids who would put stickers on their lunch box, or write their name in permanent marker on the inside of the lunch box or on the handle. I never wanted to mess up my lunch box like that. I kept mine nice up until I decided I wanted another one, and then one day, something would tragically happen to it.
You don’t see that same excitement about lunch boxes anymore. I’ve got nieces and nephews in school, and the idea of carrying a lunch box is long since gone. Even my younger brother, who was only two years behind me, was beyond a lunch box by the time the kids in his class got to the sixth grade. I think it kind of fell apart in the late ’80s, early ’90s.
I guess kids were looking for something less commercial. It was cool to carry paper bag lunches, in New York anyway, and to decorate your paper bag. Coming to school with a lunch box seemed a bit outdated by then because the lunch boxes were plastic and really geared toward younger kids.
Collectors Weekly: When did you first start collecting lunch boxes?
Adams: Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I had lunch boxes, of course, but I didn’t save them. I didn’t start collecting until I was an adult. Around 1998, when I moved from New York to California, I happened to go to an estate sale for an older gentleman who had passed away, and he had six lunch boxes that had belonged to his kids and grandkids. Some of them had the kids’ names on the inside, and one had obviously belonged to a girl because there were stickers all over it. I bought the full set of six.
I believe they were The Hardy Boys, The Bee Gees, my all-time favorite “Land of the Giants,” "The Green Hornet,” a generic Disney one about Disney World, and “Charlie’s Angels.” I still have those six.
From there, it became this weird obsession. As a graphic designer, I’m inspired by the designs. A lunch box has everything that you could possibly want in one space. There’s branding, there’s amazing illustrations, different styles, different fonts and lettering, things that I can always look to for inspiration for my own projects.
So I started to get interested in the graphic design and learning about the illustrators. I had moved out to California to start a job with Disney, actually, so I was already doing a lot of research about old illustrations for that.
I was never able to track down individual names of the artists who worked on the particular lunch boxes I had. I’m not sure if that info was ever made available. But I did learn about the companies that made them, who owned the rights to which designs, and the styles they used. It’s amazing to me that the design was all hand-done in an era where everything was moving over to the computer.
Collectors Weekly: Did the designs change much over the decades?
Adams: When lunch boxes first came out, people mostly referred to them as lunch pails. They weren’t for children at all; they were for adults. Early metal lunch boxes had a dome shape, and very few of those are still around. The square metal lunch box came later. Some of the really old lunch boxes that you’ll see floating around are not very graphically beautiful; they’re more utilitarian. Graphical representation of pop-culture icons, TV shows, cartoons, and that sort of thing came later.
The idea of tying lunch boxes to pop culture started with a company called Aladdin. They had the market wrapped up from the late ’50s until maybe the early ’60s. Then, another company, American Thermos, which most people know as the Thermos Company, came out with some of the first boxes decorated on all sides.
In the early ’60s—from what I understand having talked to other collectors—Aladdin created 3D lunch boxes. They wanted to push the illustrations out from the flat metal surface by embossing the designs. There’s a Fantastic Four lunch box from that period where it seems like The Thing is literally going to punch his fist through the side of the lunch box.
I’ve heard that in the early ’70s, a group of Florida parents banded together and declared that metal lunch boxes were too dangerous to be used by kids. That was when the decline began. The story is that the lunch boxes started being made out of plastic because companies were responding to parents who were saying, “These are dangerous. If the kids get into fights, they could hurt each other with them.” But it’s also possible that manufacturers figured out that plastic lunch boxes were cheaper to make.
Thermos, I think, was the last company that sold a metal lunch box. Their last one was a 1985 steel lunch box with a Rambo design, which is big with collectors. You have to be a bit careful about buying metal lunch boxes, though, because there have been re-releases from new manufacturers. I know Dark Horse Comics puts out a lot of metal lunch boxes, redoing many of the old designs.
Collectors Weekly: Has the process of actually putting the design onto the box changed?
Adams: Way back in the day, the designs were lithographed onto the metal. When companies switched to plastic, a lot of lunch boxes used decals that were stuck on the front in a designated inset area.
I would imagine that the machining process today is really different. You’ll notice that the designs are less complicated. There aren’t a lot of designs that wrap around the outer panels—it’s generally front and back, with solid colors around the side. From what I know about product design, it’s more expensive to print a complicated design on smaller surface areas or around an object.
Collectors Weekly: How did companies choose what to put on a box?
Adams: Everything from pop groups to popular television shows have appeared on lunch boxes. There are lunch boxes from 1969 that document NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking the first manned trip to the moon. I actually have one of those called “Moon Landing,” and it just has old photos of the astronauts going up in the spacecraft. In those pictures, they hadn’t even made it to the moon yet!
Whatever was going on culturally at the time could end up on a lunch box. High-rated TV shows were good bets for selling merchandise. I think the production process was too expensive to gamble on something that wasn’t well known.
A lot of it had to do with whether they could get the rights to an image, say of Disney’s animated characters. That’s how companies competed against one another. To obtain rights, manufacturers would approach the company or the studio that owned the character and make a pitch. Or the studio themselves—who owned the marketing rights to all their own TV shows or cartoons—would approach the manufacturer.
Aladdin started making lunch boxes for Disney back in the early ’60s. A competitor of Aladdin’s that also used Disney’s designs ended up going out of business because they were consumed by a lawsuit with Disney.
Lunch-box culture really picked up in the ’70s to ’80s—that era is considered the heyday. Studios liked the publicity they got from a lunch box, especially with seasonal TV shows. Primetime TV shows were taken off the air or went to reruns during the summer, when people were out of the house and doing other things. To have a kid hold onto his “Fraggle Rock” lunch box over the summer, or even carry it at the beginning of the school year before the fall TV seasons started, helped solidify the branding of the show.
During the ’70s, the big influences on lunch boxes were children’s television shows like “Sesame Street” and movies like “Star Wars” and “E.T.” Also, music groups like Captain & Tennille, the Bee Gees, and Fleetwood Mac were huge.
This explosion of TV, film, and radio culture encouraged some of the larger toy companies like Tyco and Ohio Art to license lunch boxes. Big board games by Milton Bradley were always coming out, so the company wanted tie-ins. Some toy brands became particularly iconic, like Hot Wheels by Mattel, and so go on their own lunch boxes. A Hot Wheels lunch box with what they call the original Twin Mill car is fairly rare and collectible. It has been reissued, though, so it’s difficult to be sure you have the original.
Now lunch boxes are having a resurgence of popularity, but it’s more about stuff that you would see on the Cartoon Network than toys. Even movies like “Twilight” now have their own lunch boxes.
Collectors Weekly: Were lunch boxes just an American craze?
Adams: I think so, at least for lunch boxes with a tie-in to pop culture. I have a friend who moved here from Japan, and he said he had a lunch box that was fairly simple. Lunch boxes there were more utilitarian, and they weren’t used to market things to kids, so to speak. That definitely seems like an American cultural phenomenon.
Across the United States, though, the cultural icons were the same because they were just so big and so invasive at the time. I didn’t move out to California until the late 1990s, and I’d meet people who would talk to me about lunch boxes that I had when I was on the East Coast or living down South. It’s a bonding moment when you meet someone and you realize, “Oh my God, we both love ‘Fraggle Rock'!”
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the lunch boxes from your childhood that are now part of your collection?
Adams: They’re primarily from the ’80s. There are “Looney Tunes” boxes, with specific characters like Bugs Bunny and Road Runner. I was really young when “Fat Albert” was on, but it’s one of my favorite boxes. I have the Muppets and “Fraggle Rock.” “Welcome Back, Kotter” was a show I wasn’t allowed to watch as a kid, but I remember sometimes sneaking in to watch it with my parents, so that’s a favorite. “Six Million Dollar Man,” “Bionic Woman,” “The Smurfs,” and Pac-Man, too—these were all things that I grew up with as a kid in the late ’70s, early ’80s.
Many of the lunch boxes in my collection have specific memories attached to them. Like the lunch box I had when I was in the fourth grade, or remembering the summer before school started when I picked out a certain lunch box with my parents. It’s an easy way to keep track of my life. And now they actually serve as storage in my loft, since I don’t have a lot of space. I’ve got this system where ’70s TV shows are for taxes and ’80s TV shows or cartoons are for personal items of the current year, that sort of thing. They still serve a utilitarian purpose.
Collectors Weekly: Were there any lunch boxes you really wanted but you never got?
Adams: Yes, and it’s funny because I never got to experience the events or the things that they depicted. I’ve never watched “Hee Haw,” the country variety hour TV show, but I love the lunch box design. It’s awesome. Same with “Gomer Pyle” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” which has this big, weird submarine on it.
There was also one from ’70s called “Disco.” It wasn’t tied to any specific TV show or band, it just had two kids on the front, as if they were in actual disco, busting out dance moves. I always wanted that one. Disney had a “Robin Hood” lunch box that I wanted, too.
Then there was the show called “Julia:” I’ve wanted that lunch box for a while. It’s out there, but I haven’t found one in good enough condition. I want “Julia” not because I even know what the show’s about but because the actors on it are African American. To find lunch boxes that feature anyone other than cartoon characters or your typical white TV stars from back in the day, that’s kind of rare. I’d want “Julia” and “Fat Albert” just for their cultural value.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the other actors and actresses on lunch boxes?
Adams: You had guys like David Carradine. I’ve got a great “Kung Fu” lunch box that moved to the front of my collection when he passed away a couple years ago. George Reeves, the actor from the ’50s “Adventures of Superman” TV show was on a lunch box, and so was Christopher Reeve, from the ’80s “Superman” films. (I had the hugest crush on him. I thought one day I’d marry him, and he’d fly me around like Lois.) All of the “Star Wars” actors are on lunch boxes, too, and each episode—”Star Wars: A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi”—had a lunch box. And then there were the “Indiana Jones” lunch boxes featuring Harrison Ford.
Collectors Weekly: Besides Aladdin and Thermos, were there any other big lunch box manufacturers?
Adams: Ohio Art was another one, although most people know them for their toys. Those would be the big three, Aladdin, Thermos, and Ohio Art.
Thermos was originally the American Thermos Bottle Company. In 1960, it was purchased along with two other companies and became the King-Seeley Thermos Company.
In 1985, they became the Thermos Company. They went through a bit of an evolution, I guess, as the market picked up and then it kind of died off again.
Except for the illustration, all the boxes were basically the same, made of the same sheet metal. The thermoses inside only had one piece of artwork, and the metal thermoses were better than the plastic thermoses because the designs on the plastic ones scratched off.
Collectors Weekly: What happened to the big companies at the end of the ’80s when the lunch box heyday ended?
Adams: I’m honestly not sure. I think maybe their market changed. Companies still make lunch boxes, but they’re just not in the box form that we knew. Even the thermoses are not the beautiful old-school, retro-style that we were used to. They’re far more modern. Companies were forced to change the way these things were made. I have no doubt that some of those lunch boxes probably had lead in their paint.
Early thermoses were steel vacuum bottles with glass liners. There’s no way they would let kids carry that sort of thing today. So companies switched to cork and rubber stoppers, and then they created the plastic thermos, the one that has the plastic screw-off top. The entire thing is made of insulated foam rather than vacuum-sealed glass, which was discontinued in the early ’70s.
Collectors Weekly: Did all lunch boxes come with a thermos?
Adams: Most of them did. It makes collecting a lot more difficult. If you can find a complete set where you’ve got the metal lunch box and the thermos together, that’s a bonus. But generally you have to hunt for them independently, and a lot of times the thermoses don’t exist any more. They got dropped and broke, or the plastic caps ended up being cracked so the thermos was thrown away.
I’ve found some of my single thermoses at places like the Salvation Army. Once in a while the past owner kept it and the lunch box together as a single entity, but that’s fairly rare. On eBay, the people selling thermoses are generally other lunch box collectors, so they make an effort to source the boxes to match the thermoses.
But there are lunch boxes that I collect just because I like them, and I don’t necessarily need the thermos. Some collectors buy only boxes that are in the most mint condition they can find, complete with thermos. I collect boxes that are far less than optimal: There’s paint missing; they have no thermos; the handle’s broken. I’m into it more for the sentimental value and the design on the box, or what’s left of it, rather than having the complete, perfect lunch box. I don’t ever plan on reselling them.
Collectors Weekly: How many lunch boxes do you have in your collection? Any rare ones?
Adams: At last count, I had about 400. One of my earliest is “How the West Was Won.” I’ve also got a “Lone Ranger” lunch box, which is really early.
I’m not sure if they’re considered rare, but I do have all of the “Star Wars” lunch boxes. There are specific TV shows like the “Land of the Giants,” which is considered fairly rare if it’s in really good condition. That’s one of my favorites out of my entire collection because the design on it is just so stunning. I’ve got an early McDonald’s one, and a Tom Corbett Space Cadet.
Some of the really rare ones, though, like Superman or Spider-Man, are not that interesting to me because although I love the characters, the design is fairly predictable. I like the ones where you can tell the designers put time into. My “Charlie’s Angels” lunch box with Farrah Fawcett is considered to be quite rare.
Collectors Weekly: Is your entire collection on display in your loft?
Adams: Not all of it. I have probably only a third of the collection up on two shelving units. The rest are still in boxes because I just don’t have the room for them. Maybe one day I’ll build out a shelving system, but right now I don’t have a way to display them all.
There’s no particular order to them, either. I like to mix and match just to keep it interesting. It’s fun when other people come over and they take the time to go through the collection, and they say, “I had that one,” or “My brother had that one,” or “Oh, my God, I wish I had that one.”
My mom gave me a “Twilight” lunch box last year for my birthday; that’s on display. Those movies are such a big deal right now, but I tend to replace the newer ones with older, harder-to-find ones, or ones that I don’t think would do well in a box long-term. You want to keep the more pristine ones out and on display, and not in a box in storage with other boxes piled on top, putting pressure on them.
Collectors Weekly: How would you assess the quality of your collection?
Adams: As a whole, from what I’ve seen in the market, the quality is fairly high. Within my own collection, I’d say 10 percent of them aren’t the best quality—you could still probably sell them, but you wouldn’t get a premium price. I’m happy with them, though, because I love the characters or the graphics.
Sometimes the wear and tear is just something that you have to accept because obviously the lunch box was functional. These were items that people used on a daily basis. Occasionally, you happen to get lucky—some little old lady in Cleveland had a lunch box in her closet for 40 years. But the quality is directly related to the price that you have to pay to collect them.
Be careful if the seller of a really great-looking lunch box says, “Check this out. This is mint condition.” If the original design was done in the ’60s or ’70s, something in prime condition is generally a remake or a re-release.
Collectors Weekly: Is it difficult to spot a remake?
Adams: Not really. Check the date on the bottom. There’ll be a copyright date or a date that the box was produced with the company name like Aladdin or Thermos. The newer boxes tend to be a slightly different shape and smaller than the originals. The way that they press the steel is different now, and they tend to be a bit lighter. Do a little research. For example, “The Blues Brothers” were never on a lunch box when the movie came out, but a company recently released one.
The sellers are pretty reputable on eBay. They know who they’re selling to. A good collector will list all of the important information about the lunch box, including whether it’s an original or not. You’ve got a good four or five sellers, I think, that people regularly buy from because those sellers understand the type of information collectors are looking for.
You have to separate those guys from, say, the person who decides to bulk sale 20 versions of a Superman lunch box that was reprinted in ’92. Sellers like that list very little information about their boxes, and they’re usually still in the plastic wrap. Today, you’re not going to find an original box that came from the ’50s up through the ’70s, or even the ’80s, in its original plastic wrapping. Most of them weren’t sold that way to begin with. You just picked them up off the shelf and went home with them.
Collectors Weekly: What determines the collectability of a lunch box?
Adams: It depends on what type of collector you are. I collect for personal enjoyment. Some people, though, collect specifically for value, and they tend to have very specific examples in their collections. There is a dome lunch box that’s really rare. If you’re one of the top true lunch box collectors, you have that one. There’s a Superman one, there’s a “Star Wars” one, there is a Spider-Man one, all of which are the pinnacles. There are very few simple style Roy Rogers lunch boxes around, and Tom Corbett lunch boxes are worth heaps of money.
Rarity has to do with when a lunch box was produced, how many were produced, and how many are still in existence. For instance, there are very few Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunch boxes actually left in the world. So besides being from the early ’50s, the scarcity has made them highly collectible. Condition is a factor, too.
Collectors Weekly: Are there any particular lunch boxes you’re currently looking for?
Adams: Other than “Julia,” which I mentioned, and “Hee Haw,” I’ve slowed down on collecting just because of my space limitations. I’m more concerned with trying to find appropriate shelving and display space for the ones I’ve got. I’m lucky to live in a large enough place where I could conceivably have them all up at once, but I want to do it in a way that displays them in the best way possible. There’s also a lot of maintenance required to keep them dust-free—they get dirty so quickly.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think lunch box collecting is growing?
Adams: I think it was pretty hardcore for a while, through the mid ’90s all the way up into the mid-2000s. There were some astronomical prices paid for lunch boxes. What made it difficult was when the market got flooded with the newer boxes made by nostalgia companies.
The prices are going up now if the artwork is in really good condition. The edge of a lunch box could be worn, but if that center panel on the front and the back and the side are still in really good condition, it can force the price up.
Things like a 1970s “Battlestar Galactica” could go for $1,100. I have a 1979 “Black Hole” lunch box that I have in gorgeous condition that would be worth $1,000. These are lunch boxes that I bought in the mid-’90s for anywhere from between 40 and 70 bucks. I heard about a Batman & Robin lunch box, an original, with an estimated value of $20,000 if it were in mint condition.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a lunch box collection?
Adams: Know why you’re collecting. If you’re collecting for longevity, to watch the value increase, then be prepared to pay for really good quality. Do a lot of research. If you’re collecting just for the sheer enjoyment of it like I do, then you can get away with probably buying a box in lesser condition just to have it as part of your collection.
Definitely use as many sources as you can and compare prices, even within one destination like eBay or Etsy. Etsy is known more for handcrafted merchandise, but there’s a vintage category, and occasionally some really great lunch boxes will show up for a decent price. Try to go through as many venues as possible.
If you have the budget for it, try to buy in bulk. There are sellers who will offer you a bit of a discount if you buy more than one or two pieces at a time. With the economy the way is right now, you can even try to bargain with people trying to offload collections.
I’m really happy with what I’ve collected. I enjoy introducing them to small kids. My nieces and nephews have seen my collection and they ask why we don’t have things like this today. Even though they know nothing about the characters depicted, the fact that you could carry something around with so much identity and have it be a part of your daily life is appealing to them.
(All images from Fanpop.com except the photos of the wall of lunch boxes and “Land of the Giants,” which are courtesy of Dee Adams.)