Lunchbox Love - Page 4

Nostalgia, art and history keep fans passionate about the metal pail that once defined their identity
Lunchbox Love
Three MCM-styled lunchboxes currently available from, where there's lots more: (L-R) 'Black and White Checkerboard,' 'Retro Romantic Evening Couple,' and 'Retro Gay Pool Party.'
Lunchbox Love
Lunchbox Love
These three photos show how Oakland artist Dee Adams brings together her two passions as décor for her live/work loft studio: mid-century modern furnishings (above) and an impressive lunchbox collection (top).

According to the lunchbox encyclopedia, from 1949 to 1985 450 different lunchboxes were produced in the United States (very few elsewhere, though a few come from Canada and Brazil). Later sources give the number as about 550.

That's far fewer than you might imagine—but we're talking metal lunchboxes, not the vinyl boxes that began back in 1959 and continued on after metal boxes died in 1985. The last metal box? 'Rambo.'

"The movie revived Sly Stallone's career, but ended metal lunchboxes," Woodall and Brickell write—not quite accurately. Rambo may have been the last box—but the death of metal certainly wasn't Rambo's fault.

Whose then was it? Ah, that's the mystery.

In their encyclopedia, the two collectors repeat a myth, which has since been demolished, that the state of Florida banned metal boxes for being "lethal weapons," used by kids to bash each other. It was said that other states soon followed.

But researchers, including one from the Florida Historical Society, have been unable to dig up those purported bans.

It's possible the manufacturers moved to plastic because of cost. It's possible too that some school districts did ban metal boxes.

Plastic lunchboxes, whether of vinyl or hard plastic, have their collectors too, but collectors of metal boxes don't always see the appeal. Leung prefers the metal boxes because their three-dimensional embossing "adds a little more realism to it. The plastic ones are flat, and they can look cheap."

One writer in Collectors Weekly called the vinyl boxes "basically shower curtains wrapped and sealed around pieces of cardboard." He also compared them, more sympathetically, to another period artifact, vinyl go-go boots.

"Needless to say, these flimsy [vinyl lunchboxes] did not stand up well to being dragged to and from school every day for a year, which is why finding a vinyl lunchbox in good condition can take some doing," Collectors Weekly went on.

Today, collectors of lunchboxes can do more than troll eBay and collectors shops. They can buy lunchboxes that are brand new, celebrating all sorts of things eight-year-old boys would never think of celebrating. Using online tools, buyers can even customize and design their own lunchboxes.

And you can even buy 21st century boxes featuring Marilyn Monroe.

Yes, lunchboxes have hit the 21st century and like such other pursuits that once appealed only to children—like scooters, Halloween, and coloring books—they are now finding an adult audience., an online retailer based in Pasadena and dating to 2000, produces metal boxes honoring the Grateful Dead, the lunch meat Spam, and the movies 'Jaws' and 'Ghostbusters.' There is also one that serves up Zombie Survival Kit.

From online seller Zazzle—there people can find pre-designed or customized bed sheets, pet beds, posters, cookware, and lunchboxes, among other things—the offerings include some sharp-looking boxes aimed at specific cohorts of mid-century modern fans.

Those MCM lunchboxes include a Shag-inspired design of a romantic couple and their cat enjoying martinis alongside an Eames lounge chair and a portable turntable spinning 45s. Oh, and there's a 'retro gay pool party' box too, with guys hanging out at poolside in front of a—natch!—Palm Springs butterfly-roofed home.

Is it lunchtime yet?


Photography: Albert Kahn (courtesy Kahn family), Zaz Von Schwinn; and courtesy Dee Adams, Geni Andrews, Rico Tee Archives