As August draws to a close, school buses are back on the roads, blackboard rails have chalk dust in them again, and back-to-school shopping is pretty much wrapped up. But as we walked the aisles of notebooks, pencils and backpacks last week, there was one item that seemed to be missing from the store shelves. I’m talking, of course, about the lunch box.
I’m sure I’m showing my age, but when I walked to school (uphill, both ways), my books were carried loosely in one hand and my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carrot sticks and potato chips were packed safely away in a tightly clasped, rectangular metal lunch box.
For me, the end of summer was a sad time. At once, it meant the end to all-day street baseball games, exploring in the woods and playing with Micronauts on the alien landscape my rumpled bed covers made.
But the saving grace was an August trip to the neighborhood five-and-dime store to pick out a new lunch box for the year. No decision was more important: What you carried your lunch in said a lot about your personality, attitude … your whole ethos.
Whether your interest was television, music, sports, movies or comics, you could find a lunch box that proudly proclaimed your allegiance in four-color pressed metal. Most boxes came with a matching Thermos for keeping 8 ounces of liquid cool (or hot), and many a lunch period was spent looking at all six sides of the box, admiring the artwork that adorned the armor of my alimentary abundance.
The lunch pail has been around since the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1935 that the first marketing genius thought to appeal to kids by pasting Mickey Mouse’s picture on a box. Still, the lunch box, as we know it, didn’t surge into popularity until the early ’50s, when branded lunch boxes really took off, launching a heyday that lasted more than 30 years, paying tribute to cultural icons from Roy Rogers to Jimi Hendrix, Scooby Doo to Rambo — and darn near everything in between.
New manufacturing processes during the mid-1970s gave way to injection-molded plastic boxes (with one lousy decal) and flimsy vinyl boxes that fell apart a month into the new school year. Some claim it was due to legislation emanating from Florida, but that theory has some doubters.
Finally, during the mid-1980s, the lunch box took a vacation from mainstream culture. Metal boxes disappeared almost entirely, followed soon after by the plastic tubs, only to be replaced by unimaginative zippered nylon bags.
But this wasn’t a death knell for the venerable lunch box. Like many once-popular items, lunch boxes are seeing a bit of a resurgence. Some manufacturers are kicking out limited runs of metal boxes, and the lunchtime icon is showing up in some unusual places, as well.
You can still buy lunch boxes on eBay, through various collector groups and some of the better e-tailers on the Web. What’s more, a few years ago, the Smithsonian deemed the lunch box popular enough to merit its own special display.
So, while my kids go to school with a brown paper sack or one of those anonymous insulated nylon bags, I fondly remember the metal boxes of my youth — the utilitarian containers that would carry my lunch one year and baseball cards or Hot Wheels the next.
Of all the lunch boxes over the years, my favorite was probably from the latter years of grade school. The theme for this black-trimmed box was Marvel Comics Super Heroes. The Fantastic Four held their ground on one side while Thor, Spidey and Captain America defended the lid.
I still remember all the scratches where the paint had worn away and the remnants from a sticker on the side. It provided hours and hours of wonder and imaginative fodder. You won’t get that out of a nylon bag.
What about you — did you carry a lunch box growing up? Please let us know in the comments.