Marianna Sorensen

From Bag to Box: The Launching of Lunch Boxes

Marianna Sorensen

When I was in elementary school, my plastic, insulated lunch box was absolutely necessary. If I wanted my yogurt kept fresh, what would I do if it weren’t insulated? What would keep my crackers from being crushed? Lunch boxes are fancy nowadays, though they weren’t always. Over time, the lunch box has evolved as different versions went in and out of fashion.

The lunch box first came to the United States in the early twentieth century. Versions of it have been used around the world for much longer. The tiffin, a type of cylindrical tin, has been used in India since the nineteenth century, and bentos, small lunches in prearranged containers, have long been served in Japan. In the United States, most kids originally would go home for lunch. Those who traveled far to get to school and couldn’t eat lunch at home would bring lunch in bags or little wooden boxes. Metal boxes, which would become popular later on, were initially used by tradesmen and factory workers because the metal was durable enough to protect their meals from the environment they worked in. In the 1880s, kids who wanted to imitate their parents started making their own versions of metal lunch boxes with cookie tins and tobacco tins.

After World War II, schools became larger and more students traveled to school. This led to more schools having cafeterias and fewer children going home to eat. Kids eating a homemade lunch then needed lunch boxes, and what better way to make them appealing to children than to decorate them with characters? The first lunch box for children with a licensed character, Mickey Mouse, came out in 1935. However, lunch boxes weren’t that desirable until 1950. That year, Aladdin Industries, which had been making the metal boxes that workers carried, began making new ones with a picture of a TV character: a cowboy named Hopalong Cassidy. These were so popular that Aladdin Industries sold 600,000 of them in the first year.

Other manufacturers started putting figures from pop culture on lunch boxes too. Some had Barbie in various outfits or the Beatles performing. Others had characters from the TV series Kung Fu. Lunch boxes became more and more common. Then, in the 1980s, plastic ones started coming out, essentially replacing metal lunch boxes. The lunch box industry is more practical today—the insulated plastic or fabric ones are now the rage. Metal lunch boxes with movie characters are less common, but are still made today for some popular franchises.

The lunch box has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The possibilities today are endless no matter what your lunch needs are. Give your midday meal a new pop of personality, or see if you can find an antique of an old favorite—a side of nostalgia always goes great with lunch.

Did You Know?
Before the backpack there was the book strap. Kids used it in the early 1900s to bring books back and forth from school. It was simply a leather belt that wound around the necessary books and then could be hung over your shoulder or carried like a bag.

Photo Credit: Davidmerkoski

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