Carrying one’s lunch to school or work is, of course, as old as the proverbial hills, and what we know today as lunch boxes became ubiquitous in the last century. Some of its history has been chronicled by Scott Bruce, author of the 1988 book, Lunch Box: The Fifties and Sixties. I can’t remember how I got this book. I think my dad received it as a freebie when he worked for Bacar, Inc., a now-defunct housewares middleman company. Anyway, the book is a gallery of culinary conveyances ranging from the cool to the cringe-y to the plain old weird, set against a black background, sprinkled with lots of factoids and trivia about the intricacies of the lunch box world.
Bruce isn’t interested in the classic plain metal boxes beloved by blue-collar workers the world over. Oh, no, he’s after the jazzy ones kids carry to school. School is, natch, well-underway by now in most of the world, and that means school lunch. For the kids who bring their own, what their repast comes in can make or break their coolness. At least, according to Bruce–in his view, the kid who carried a Red Plaid box was forever a target of ridicule or pity.
The advent of cowboy TV programs was a huge influence on lunch box design. Studios saw lunch boxes as a way to promote their shows, and box companies saw decals on boxes as a way to boost sagging sales numbers. The TV folks struck up licensing agreements with the two main box companies, Aladdin and Thermos.
Hopalong Cassidy’s cheerful face graced the first licensed lunch box, manufactured by Aladdin in 1950. It was a massive hit with both boys and girls, selling six hundred thousand in a year. Not to be outdone, Roy Rogers wanted his own box, only he went to Aladdin’s rival, Thermos. Thermos did Aladdin one better, putting pictures all over the box instead of a dinky little decal, and sold two and a half million in a year. Like any savvy competitor, Aladdin followed suit. There was a lot of bad blood between the two companies, but in a free enterprise system, such animosity can come with the territory. It’s all good, though, because it means everyone’s gonna up their game.
There were four major players in the box artist world: Robert O. Burton, Elmer Lehnhardt, Ed Wexler, and, probably the most familiar of all, Nick LoBianco. They may not be household names, but these men had their hands in things we all use and see constantly without thinking about.
Robert O. Burton, a veteran restaurant designer, cooked up the first KFC logo back when it was still called Kentucky Fried Chicken. Bruce says Burton also conceived the lighting scheme for a new shopping center in Chicago in 1957, with the lamp posts looking like golf clubs. Eisenhower himself turned them on for the first time via satellite. Burton was a prolific creator for Aladdin, starting with their Hopalong Cassidy box.
The quieter but no less prestigious Elmer Lehnhardt was another designer for Aladdin. His claim to fame in the marketing world was designing the Coca-Cola Santa, which was first introduced in 1949. Lehnhardt’s thing was using himself as a model for his lunch boxes, at least when it came to basic character placement and overall look. His Land of the Giants lunch box contains his self-portrait, although Bruce says he looks more like Ho Chi Minh.
Over in the Thermos camp resided Ed Wexler. Wexler was a veteran of food label design, which means he excelled at making box art really pop. Bright colors, lots of contrast, and plenty of perspective. Among the companies he worked for were the Puss ‘n Boots cat food company, Hormel, and Stokely’s. Roy Rogers was a big fan of Wexler’s art, and apparently sang “Happy Trails” to him when Wexler retired from Thermos.
I’ve saved the biggest for last, and I do mean biggest: Nick LoBianco. After Thermos released a Charlie Brown lunch box in 1966, Charles M. Schulz himself recruited LoBianco to be a licensed Peanuts artist. LoBianco drew everything Peanuts-related except for the comic strip–T-shirts, wall art, graphics for toys, children’s books, whatever. Mr. LoBianco continued to work for Thermos as well, although he did have to bring in friends to help him out with his assignments now and then.
Since what were then known as cowboy and Indian shows were the dominant form of programming in the fifties, Wild West boxes get their own chapter in Bruce’s book. Roy Rogers was soon joined by wife, Dale Evans on several boxes, but they shared shelf space with Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, Annie Oakley, and the casts of Rawhide, Bonanaza, and Have Gun, Will Travel. Some kits got really creative, making the edge designs of the boxes look like tooled leather.
Sci-fi was a huge draw as well, and as the fifties were replete with other-worldly shows, the lunch box market was as well. Besides the ubiquitous Star Trek, Lost In Space was huge, as was Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea. Basically anything with outer space or future-y motifs was a safe seller.
Another major market share was music-oriented kits, and since it was the fifties and sixties, the Beatles were king. Or maybe someone was a Monkees fan, although Nick LoBianco wryly remarked that the Monkees were “the Beatles run through a Xerox machine.”
Wanting to maximize their profits, the boxmen introduced vinyl lunch kits and purse-like “brunch bags,” which were marketed to young teens. These lunch boxes tended to feature more generic themes like “Go-go” and “Gigi the Poodle” in lieu of the cartoon characters and TV shows favored by their more juvenile counterparts. These kits had the added benefit of appeasing cautious parents who were afraid kids were swinging their metal lunch boxes at each other.
Some lunch kits were plain old duds. Besides the infamous Red Plaid box, which, oddly enough, isn’t pictured in Bruce’s book, one of the weirdest kits was a loaf of bread with a Thermos shaped like a can of tomato soup. It’s pop art gold, but kids gave it a hard pass.
Bruce’s comparisons are sometimes laughably off the wall. I get his likening a guy’s helmet on a jet skiing lunch box to a maraschino cherry, but he also says the lunch box version of Trigger looks like a Cornish hen and Flipper looks like Bob Hope. He even wryly claims Kirk and Spock impatiently wait for a table at Denny’s on the Star Trek lunch box. Mmmmkay. Maybe the boxes look different in person. Anyway, it’s kitsch, so people see what they want to see and it’s all a matter of taste.
It goes without saying that lunch boxes have changed a whole lot since the fifties and sixties. Heck, since Bruce’s book was written they’ve gone through major overhauls. I’ve noticed kids have stackable cannisters or containers that look like bento boxes (Or maybe just a Ziploc like this girl). Licensing doesn’t seem to be as much of a thing with lunch kits anymore, although it still goes on. Disney, for one, is cleaning up in that department. However, it doesn’t appear to be what draws kids nowadays (My son’s lunch box is waterproof nylon with light-up wolf eyes. Not a character in sight.). Bruce’s book is even more nostalgic than it was twenty-five years ago.
Overall, Lunch Box is a lot of fun. There’s a bit of repetition–Bruce seems obsessed with that maraschino cherry helmet, because he mentions it at least three times–but there’s a lot to see, so it really doesn’t matter.
Thanks for reading, all, and see you soon…