Before the 1950s television craze found kids glued to programs like The Lone Ranger and Howdy Doody, lunch boxes were the domain of working men who needed durable steel boxes to keep their victuals safe until break time. However, as cartoons and kids’ programs became a greater part of American popular culture, savvy marketers realized that children needed to transport their lunches as well. What better way to generate revenue and advertise at the same time than to plaster children’s lunch boxes with the faces of their favorite characters?
Of course Disney was the first to realize the power of the lunch box. The first licensed character lunch box featured Mickey Mouse and came courtesy of the pioneering hosewares manufacturing firm Geuder, Paeschke & Frey in 1935. Over the next 20 years, however, dozens of competitors got in on the lunch box game, and soon, virtually every film, book, and television program that was even tangentially aimed at kids had its own promotional tie-in version.
But what became of all those lunch boxes? Well, today the rarest of the lot can fetch sellers a pretty penny. Mike Kaye, owner of LunchBoxCollector.com, says that rarity is key when it comes to a serious lunch box collection. For example, the ultra-rare 1954 Superman lunch box can set a collector back $20,000. The second most important factor for serious collectors is condition. Normally they’re looking for lunch boxes in mint or nearly perfect condition, so no squeaky-hinged, rusted out lunch pails allowed. Finally, age matters, as the most sought-after boxes were made between 1950 and 1980.
So if you’re out vintage shopping and you think you’ve struck gold, remember rarity, condition, and age will be your best bet for turning a profit off a child’s lunch box. But most importantly, says Kaye, you need to be able to spot a phony. Companies like Aladdin and Thermos, whose lunch boxes bring top dollar from collectors, printed their names right on the boxes. A true vintage lunch box will also be heavier than an imposter, as those early boxes were made of steel as opposed to today’s thinner metal.
Do you have lunch box gold stashed away in your attic? Look through our list to find out!
Aladdin, Little Friends (1982), $850; Matching Plastic Bottle, $260
Hake’s Americana and Collectibles named this sweet vintage lunch box one of the five rarest in the country. With its nod to Pippi Longstocking and adorable animal motif, snatching one up is a point of pride for any serious collector.
Adco Liberty, Howdy Doody (1954), $950
Most Boomers fondly remember Howdy Doody and his gang of friendly puppets as a childhood morning staple. The Howdy Doody lunch box features not just Howdy, but a number of his smiling friends. Who says you can’t put a price tag on memories?
* All the pricing & information garnered from Toys & Prices 19th Edition by Mark Bellomo, pub 2013, and from Warman’s Lunch Boxes Field Guide