Mickey Mouse was the first popular character to appear on a lunchbox. That was 1935. As a highly personal statement and must-have accessory, the lunchbox really took off in the 1950’s. Television was a big reason for their mass adoption and accessory envy. Television made people and characters stars, it became natural for those celebrities to appear on lunch conveyances. It helps that lunchbox manufacturers built a good product. The metal carry-alongs did not wear out.
One company became the industry leader. Aladdin, introduced planned obsolescence by offering a range of options appealing to people’s fleeting interests and changing styles. They first licensed images from the Hopalong Cassidy television show, placing a design on the side of red lunchboxes.
At the same time, Aladdin convinced a department store chain to order 50,000 units. The lunchbox debuted just in time for the back-to-school fervor in 1950. The product retailed at $2.39 or approximately $26 in today’s dollars. The “Hoppy”, as it came to be known, sold a staggering 600,000 units that first year.
Aladdin would soon be bested by competitor, American Thermos. In 1953, they put out a Roy Rogers lunchbox that sold over two million units. American Thermos not only provided a different western star, they came out with full color printing on both sides of the box rather than a decal on just one.
Kids were soon demanding the latest and greatest design of the hottest hero. It was normal for kids to have two or more lunchboxes in a single school year. This impact attributed to the lure of marketing caused Malcolm Muggeridge, journalist, author, media personality and satirist to state, “History will see advertising as one of the real evil things of our time. It is stimulating people constantly to want things, want this, want that.”
The lunchbox industry became increasingly competitive demanding continuous micro innovations. The square box would live on but the rounded, dome-shaped version captured fresh attention. Often the domed lunchbox had a matching thermos secured in the lid. I fondly remember my Spiderman box and thermos. The licensing of popular characters proved to be incredibly expense. Also, the fame of television and cartoon stars was so short-lived that by the time the lunchboxes were designed and distributed, interest had waned.
Manufacturers began producing generic boxes tied to trends. These did not require licensing and were quicker to market. Aladdin came out with the “Buccaneer” in 1957, taking advantage of the pirate craze created by the movie, Peter Pan. It was a hit, so more and more domed, semi-generic boxes were produced.
The Disney Schoolbus proved to be the biggest seller of all time. The design took advantage of the dome shape and ended up finding its way into nine million children’s hands. In 1962, Aladdin began stamping designs into the metal. This 3-D effect was far more effective than the vinyl version but lacked durability and was deemed unsanitary.
The lunch box is its own popular culture icon. Woody Woodpecker, Barbie, Tintin, Star Trek, The Muppets, The Six Million Dollar Man, Star Wars, The A-Team, The Spice Girls, Hello Kitty, Apple computers and One Direction have all graced the sides of lunch boxes. Licensing of popular characters remains a strategy to drive sales. Disney’s Frozen, Lego movies, Ghostbusters, Trolls, are popular even in the time of a global pandemic.
Time has marched on and innovations have taken place. There are heated varieties, sushi bento box-inspired designs, neoprene versions that resemble luxury purses, and the good old heavy duty workman type. Amazon features one that looks like a Fender amp and another shaped like a hot dog food truck. Some carry a retro vibe done up as a Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine, Nintendo Classic Gameboy, and fittingly, Jaws.
Many lunch boxes are currently collecting dust, but rest assured, there will be a resurgence once again. The comeback will be made all the more powerful by our love of nostalgia and a need to revisit better times.