By Peggy Jordan
Associate Editor, Family Motor Coaching magazine
If you were a kid in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and even mid-‘80s, you probably went to school with a lunch box that let you personally endorse your favorite form of pop culture. Maybe it was an activity. Or a radio or TV show, or a celebrity, movie, or cartoon. Whatever it was, your lunch box had pictures on it that reflected your interests.
And hey, all you backpack-slinging kids of today: the lunch box was the only carry-on required. It not only transported lunch to school, but gym excuse notes, scout dues, cash for a field trip, and so forth. Since it was empty for the trip home, it could be filled with graded papers, homework, or maybe even a report card.
The lunch box usually came with a vacuum bottle we commonly called a thermos. These were round containers that kept liquids hot or cool. They were great until the day we accidentally broke them. Oh, the fateful moment we heard the crackle of the glass inside! It always came much sooner than Mom thought it should.
A huge collection of lunch boxes (and extant vacuum bottles) can be viewed at the Lunch Box Museum in Columbus, Georgia. It makes for a quirky, nostalgic stop on your way to or from FMCA’s upcoming Family Reunion & Motorhome Showcase in Perry, Georgia, this March.
The collection is in a former state farmers’ market building that now houses a large antiques mall called the International Marketplace. The mall is stuffed with cool vintage cars, signs, and plenty of other merchandise.
The lunch box collection is in its own separate area, and a small fee is charged to enter ($5 for adults, $4 for seniors and military, and free for kids under 10). Museum owner Allen Woodall cheerfully noted that admission has a satisfaction guarantee.
Mr. Woodall started collecting lunch boxes more than 30 years ago because he thought they were neat. “They’re pop art!” he said. Back around 1987, he was corresponding with a few other collectors and heard about a man in St. Louis, Missouri, who had passed away, leaving a huge lunch box collection — 700 or so.
Despite other interested buyers, Mr. Woodall was able to obtain the whole set by promising the man’s widow that he’d write a book about lunch boxes with photos of the many examples in the collection. He followed through on his promise with The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes, which is still available today.
“After that, of course, I started the museum,” he said. “It has been a hit.”
And it has grown quite a bit since it started. Today nearly 2,000 lunch boxes make up the collection. You will see at least 800 metal lunch boxes displayed in shelves, hung from the ceiling, and displayed on chairs; some are near retro TV trays, which also sport popular-culture icons. Were your heroes Howdy Doody, Roy Rogers, or Hopalong Cassidy? You’ll see them again on the side of a lunch box!
Peanuts cartoon characters, and superheroes like the Incredible Hulk, Batman, or Superman are here also. Evel Knievel, the Flintstones, the Jetsons, the Partridge Family, and Star Trek icons join those from Disney movies like Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, and Snow White. Music-themed boxes bear the likenesses of The Beatles, Bobby Sherman, Donny Osmond, The Monkees … the variety is impressive.
The very first lunch box to sport a television character was made in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1950-51, when Aladdin Industries put a Hopalong Cassidy decal on the outside of its lunch boxes. American Thermos put Roy Rogers’ likeness on its lunch boxes two years later.
Metal lunch box production ended in the mid-1980s, reportedly after they were deemed too harmful if used as weapons in a schoolyard fight. Ironically, the very last metal lunch box ever made had Rambo on its side.
Mr. Woodall’s collection includes vintage vinyl lunch boxes as well. Remember those shiny things? And yet for all this, he still has not found his holy grail: “There is one box called Toppie,” he said. “It was from Top Value Stamps and has an elephant on it.” If you see one of those 1957 metal lunch boxes, let him know!
News of the huge lunch box collection sparked the curatorial curiosity of folks from the Smithsonian Institution a few years ago, when some of the humble kits were donated or sold and used as part of a Smithsonian exhibit called “Taking America to Lunch” and its traveling spinoff, “Lunch Box Memories,” which toured museums from 2002 to 2006.
While you’re at the Columbus museum, you may also find some lunch boxes for sale in the buy-sell-trade area. You never know. Maybe you’ll head back to your motorhome with a lunch box similar to the one you proudly carried in fourth grade.
Just watch it with that thermos!
The Lunch Box Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is located inside the International Marketplace, at 318 10th Ave. in Columbus, Georgia. Call (706) 322-6378 or visit www.lunchboxmuseum.com for more information. Ample, free parking is available (motorhomes welcomed).
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