As an adult, you have many ways to express your tastes—you do it with the clothes you wear, the cars you drive, the home décor you choose, and the statements you spew across social media platforms.
But as child anticipating the first day of school and wanting to make a strong impression, your options were limited. Your mom was still buying your clothes. School supplies were mostly bland. Only one back-to-school purchase was both an expression of your individuality and a totem connecting you to your peers: The lunch box.
The National Museum of American History is hosting a small exhibit of vintage lunchboxes. (To celebrate the exhibit’s opening, the Museum enticed ancient celebrities to pose with their younger, immortalized-in-tin representations.)
The Lunch Box Museum in Columbus, Georgia, displays a much larger selection (and has now earned a spot on my bucket list). Lunch box collecting is a bustling business online, and many web sites offer photo galleries of the best and worst lunch box specimens. (I’m pretty sure one of my schoolmates had that Exciting World of Metrics box.)
I grew up in the 1970s, the pinnacle of lunch box history. I remember my male classmates toting NFL, superhero, Six Million Dollar Man, and Star Wars boxes. Girls’ boxes offered the full gamut of 1970s female images, from Holly Hobbie to Charlie’s Angels. Disney, the Muppets, and Peanuts were always popular. All these boxes were metal, of course, with lithographed designs on every side. (This interview with a graphic designer who collects vintage lunch boxes provides some interesting insights on the design process.)
Though I remember other people’s lunchboxes, I can’t remember having one of my own in either first or second grade. I must have eaten hot lunch every day.
I do remember my third grade lunchbox—a yellow plastic dome-shaped Snoopy box. To my best friend and me, this box seemed innovative and different. Plastic! Domed, with a Thermos that fit in the top! We both bought them; I think hers was red.
That innovative plastic, sadly, signaled the beginning of the end for the lunch box heyday. Today, my daughter takes a cloth Vera Bradley lunch bag to school. It’s pretty and easy to carry, but I don’t think it will ever grace the Smithsonian.