Allen Woodall’s Lunchbox Museum in Columbus, Georgia, is organized for adventure, not that one could tell at first blush. More than 3,000 lunchboxes and 1,000 thermoses sit on floor-to-ceiling shelves that line the walls. Others hang from the ceiling.
“I’m not going to say there’s no order here, because there’s an order,” says Kaitlynn Etheridge, a curator and marketing director for the museum—and Woodall’s granddaughter. “It’s just our kind of order.”
The 33-year-old museum houses one of the most extensive collections of the items in the world. “We have most every lunchbox there is available, even international ones,” Etheridge, 36, says.
Some loose themes can be discerned in the madness. Six cases in the center of the museum hold notable lunchboxes, including extremely rare items, like a 1957 offering featuring Toppie the Top Value Elephant. For those not familiar (which I suspect is many), Toppie was a mascot for supermarket chain Kroger’s value stamp program. In 2021, a Toppie lunchbox sold at auction for more than $3,500. But for the most part, rather than grouping the collection by date or material, the museum encourages “the hunt,” Etheridge says.
The collection began on a whim, when Woodall, then the owner of a radio station in Columbus, bought two vintage lunchboxes at an Atlanta antiques show in 1985. One was Green Hornet-themed; the other sported Dick Tracy on the front.
“It immediately flashed back memories in my mind of when I was 10 years old, in my grandparents’ home up in Social Circle, Georgia, laying on the living room floor and listening to Dick Tracy on the radio and the Green Hornet,” Woodall, 88, says.
It’s this same nostalgia that Woodall hopes to spark in the museum’s visitors. And if it’s any measure of his success, he says, they are often visibly moved when they find themselves face to face with an artifact from their school days. And, thanks to the hands-on nature of the museum, they’re even free to hold it for a picture or snap it open.
“I’ve been to the Louvre, I’ve been to museums all over the place,” Woodall says, in a hyperbolic moment. “In all the museums that I’ve seen, I’ve never seen anybody get emotional and come to tears except here in this lunchbox museum.”
Lunchboxes intertwine with our lives in special ways, which is why the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has its own long-term display with more than 50 illustrated metal lunchboxes and beverage containers, some of which Woodall donated. “Taking America to Lunch” traces the evolution of lunchboxes, accentuating how they mirror popular culture at any given moment. The display’s oldest items include late 19th-century miners’ dinner pails and an 1890s cigar tin. More modern lunchboxes feature eye-catching designs from the 1960s sci-fi television series “Lost in Space” and the 1983 blockbuster movie Return of the Jedi.
David Shayt, who curated the show until his death in 2008, told the Washington Post’s Annie Groer in 2004 that one of his own childhood lunchboxes, which was decorated with a diagram of a nuclear submarine, was part of what inspired him to become a Marine and then a historian of technology.
“[The lunchbox] pushes so many buttons,” Shayt said. “It’s TV, it’s childhood, it’s school, it’s food, it’s mom and it’s loss—above all, because so many people lost theirs.”
While the pop culture collectibles tug on the heartstrings, Woodall points out that these didn’t really take off until the 1950s. Some of the earliest ways people transported their food to work, school and picnics were in woven baskets, wrapped in a handkerchief or even in a special wooden box. During the early 20th century, it was common for rural children who lived far from school to pack their food in these ways or in decorative tin cans that had originally held plug tobacco, lard or biscuits. The practice was more infrequent in cities, where children tended to live closer to their schools and could return home for lunch. In the mid-20th century, smaller schools were consolidated into larger ones, meaning more students were farther from home and brought packed lunches.
The National School Lunch Act of 1946 made school cafeterias widespread, ostensibly rendering the homemade lunch expendable. So what really made lunchboxes take off was less necessity and more the chance for marketing. Disney had launched the first “character” lunchbox, sporting Mickey Mouse on the front, in 1935. One of these, which Woodall calls the “holy grail of lunchboxes,” sits in a glass case in the museum, the oldest in his collection. When Hopalong Cassidy appeared on the front of a metal lunchbox in 1950, advertisers quickly identified an easy way to market to children. A whole cast of radio, television and movie characters began to appear on lunchboxes; they became a form of cultural currency, and kids wanted to keep up with the latest characters and shows. The convenient carriers enjoyed their heyday until the mid-1980s, when manufacturers turned from metal to less expensive materials like vinyl.
Amassing a collection that includes so many cultural icons hasn’t been an easy task for Woodall. But once he purchased those first boxes in Atlanta, he was hooked by the history and pop art of them. He began to scour yard sales, antique shows and estate sales, slowly building his collection with pairs and trios.
Then came the windfall.
In 1987, Woodall read about a man in Woodstock, Georgia, with a collection of more than 600 lunchboxes. Hoping to purchase any duplicate pieces for his own collection, Woodall reached out. His timing was perfect: The collector, about to make an addition to his home, was selling his entire trove. Woodall made an acceptable offer and instantly had the foundation for a museum.
Woodall began to store the collection in a room above his radio station, advertising it over the airwaves and inviting the public for tours. In these early days, visitors could take a freight elevator up to the second floor and dig through a collection that was already more than 1,000 items strong. In the two rooms devoted to the collection, they could spot the iconic Hopalong Cassidy, lunchboxes decorated with pop culture classics like “Charlie’s Angels,” and older plug tobacco tins.
Then, just before the turn of the decade, Robert Carr, a friend and fellow collector from St. Louis, died, leaving behind an extensive collection of classic lunchboxes. Unable to offer the same sums to his friend’s widow as other buyers with deeper pockets, Woodall offered to write a book about lunchboxes and dedicate it to Carr. He got the collection, and in 1990, he made good on his promise, co-writing The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes with fellow collector Sean Brickell.
That same year, the museum moved to its own permanent home, and Woodall retired from his radio station job to follow his passion for antiques—especially those with a Columbus connection—full-time. Now, more than three decades later, Woodall’s thousands of lunchboxes, housed in a long room that adjoins Woodall’s River Market Antiques storefront, continue to draw visitors from around the country. Additionally, Woodall and Etheridge recently rebranded their antiques-collecting endeavor as Columbus Collective Museums, which collectively provide a window into the evolution of pop culture and technology—with a special emphasis on the history of Columbus, the birthplace of Royal Crown, Chero-Cola and Nehi drinks, as well as Tom Huston peanuts.
Enthusiasm for vintage lunchboxes persists, even if their value is now largely sentimental rather than practical. Some visitors leave the museum with one of their own; Woodall offers duplicates for sale, which usually range in price from $50 to $150. And others actually contribute to Woodall’s collection—the museum’s latest acquisition was a plastic Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck lunchbox.
“We will never stop collecting,” Etheridge says.