Going to Lunch in Style with Historic Lunchboxes

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It's back to school time, which means that kids everywhere are prepping for another year in the classroom. Of course, this requires purchasing those pieces of classroom haute couture, such as book bag, notebooks, new clothes and perhaps a pair of stylish-but-sensible sneakers. But let's not forget the linchpin accessory for the schoolyard fashionista—the lunchbox.

In honor of the dawn of another school year, the Smithsonian's American History Museum is once again displaying its lunchbox collection in the exhibit Taking America to Lunch, featuring pieces from the 1890s to the 1980s.

For working adults in the late 19th and early 20th century, lunchboxes were an earmark of social standing—if you were caught toting one, it indicated that you didn't have the time or money to go home or out to an eatery for your midday meal. Kids, however, were—and still are—the ones who had the most fun with portable dining. Early on, youngsters were given whatever containers were handy to carry their lunch, such as empty tobacco or coffee tins. In 1902, store- bought metal lunchboxes for kids hit the market—it was shaped like a picnic basket and featured images of children at play.

Licensed characters, such as Mickey Mouse and his pals, began appearing on lunch kits as early as the 1930s—as can be seen in this Antiques Roadshow clip. However, it wasn't until the 1950s and the advent of television that lunchboxes bearing beautifully lithographed artwork of pop culture icons became de rigeur. Soon enough, boxes bore the likenesses of TV stars such as Hopalong Cassidy and music groups including the Beatles and these brilliant bits of pressed tin became cafeteria status symbols. Indeed, the fabulous factor of lunchbox graphics could totally make or break a kid's reputation. Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo—the only people I’ve yet to find who’ve had the presence of mind to write a nuanced appreciation of how people carry their food—write in their 2004 book Lunchbox, "For children who lived during the golden age of lunchboxes, choosing a carrying case for your peanut butter or bologna sandwiches was more than a practical decision—it showed who you were and who you aspired to be."

Metal lunchboxes began to disappear by the mid-80s as the companies producing them began to favor cost-effective, but less-durable plastics. Yet, in the current trend of retro-chic aesthetics, the classic metal boxes are making a comeback. However, in looking at the preponderance of vintage images, it looks like the new lunchboxes are being marketed to baby boomers and generation X-ers looking to buy back a bit of their youth. Cynical observations aside, I harbor a great deal of respect for those people brave enough to tote around an accessory that brazenly displays an element of their personality.

How about you? How do you like to lunch? Take our poll or talk about your lunchbox memories in the comments area!

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