Tin Lunch Boxes HQ: Great Nostalgic & Retro Designed Metal Lunch Boxes!
– The Metal Lunch Boxes Store
– Collectors’ Price Guide Reviews
Please enjoy your stay and let me know if you have any comments or questions!
Tin Lunch Boxes HQ Founder
With the lunch box bonanza gathering pace in the early 1950s there were several new entrants into the market, all keen to a turn profit from the apparent explosion in these fashionable items. ADCO was one such player who began making metal lunch boxes in 1954.
ADCO-Liberty MFG. Corp., to give the company’s full name, featured several designs including E. Roger Muir’s, popular NBC Howdy Doody TV show and also some successful Disney models including Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Davy Crockett. However, it was the company’s relationship with Disney which would eventually put an end to its lunchbox production.
Just two short years after ADCO-Liberty began manufacturing operations, a dispute with Disney occurred over the Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier model. Whilst Davy himself was a licensed character from the 1955 Disney film, in an effort to increase the marketing appeal of the lunch box, ADCO had decided to feature Kit Carson on the rear of the product. Kit, of course, was a non-Disney TV hero and this caused disagreement between the two companies. The exact details of what went on are unclear, but the end result was, in 1956, that Disney switched over to Nashville-based Aladdin Industries for lunch box design and manufacture. Simultaneously, ADCO shut down its operations in Newark, New Jersey.
There are some rare and valuable ADCO collector’s items. The pictures below are of the product that caused the Disney dispute. Including the 15% buyer’s premium, it sold for $347.88 on 27 May 2010 at Hake’s Americana & Collectibles.
After publishing the two recent articles on tuned..
However, in the process of my research I came across this lunch box quiz which is a lot of fun and actually has some really good questions. I definitely learnt a lot, but I’m too shy to tell you my score!
You can check it out here (only takes 3 minutes):
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Alongside American Thermos and the fantastic Aladdin Industries, the Ohio Art Company became known as one of the “big three” lunch boxes manufacturers during the 1950s.
The roots of the company were formed by Henry S. Winzeler, a dentist and art enthusiast from Archbold, Ohio in 1908. In the early days it was mainly picture frames and other novelty items that rolled off the production line. Gradually, as printing and lithograph technology evolved towards the end of the First World War, Henry moved into the toy business adding in windmills, drums, tea sets and of course the famous “climbing monkey”.
Ohio’s success continued during the interwar period and a year after incorporating in 1930, they paid a $6 dividend to shareholders. Steel restrictions from 1942 to the end of WWII shut down the company’s toy manufacturing processes which were converted – albeit temporarily – to produce technical parts for the military.
By the 1950s, the metal lunch box craze was in full swing and Ohio, who had a background in lunch pails (the precursor of “modern” metal lunch boxes), played a significant part in it. Business was healthy and the profits from this period enabled Henry to pick up on an idea developed by French inventor and electrician Andre Cassagnes which later evolved into the all-time classic children’s toy, the Etch-A-Sketch system.
Today, Ohio Art has two main business divisions. The first is still centered around Etch-A-Sketch plus other popular toys, and the second remains focused on the metal lithography technology which propelled the mass lunchbox popularity of the 1950s.
Whilst arguably not as well known as Aladdin Industries, there is no doubt about the quality and collectibility of Ohio’s lunch transport products. Here is one of the company’s vintage pieces, a rare 1982 Jack & Jill box from 1982. This particular example was listed on eBay for $125:
In a previous post I talked about the Aladdin Company’s success in the early 1950s with the Hopalong Cassidy Lunch Box. If you haven’t read that post, then it is enough to know for now that this product provided an enormous boost to Aladdin’s sales which shot up from 50,000 units per year to 600,000 after Hopalong was launched. Hot on the heals of this, the American Thermos Company had tremendous success with their Roy Rogers lunch box which sold over 2.5 million in 1953 alone.
Whilst these numbers may seem impressive they are in fact dwarfed by the world’s best selling tin lunch box which was the Disney School Bus box. Here it is in all its glory:
Expensive at the time, they were originally priced at $2.69 by Universal. In the years that followed sales would eventually top 9 million boxes!
As merchandise goes this product had everything: A attractive dome shaped design, the iconic American school bus and a host of Disney characters including Pluto, Jimmy Cricket, Goofy, Thumper, Dopey, Bambi, Donald Duck and of course Mickey Mouse! Not only that but it had huge everyday practical value at a time when tin lunch boxes were standard issue for an increasing amount of school kids.
Such is the design it would be easy to imagine that these items fetch more than they actually do in today’s collectors’ auctions. Many price guides suggest $300-$500 but this is really for original boxes in mint or very good condition. In reality, the exact price will depend on the actual year of manufacture as well as condition. Originals from 1956 may well fetch these guide prices but a quick search on eBay or similar auction sites reveals several boxes for sale from later years for much less. For example, I just searched and found one for $125 from 1968 and another (of slightly worse condition) for $77 from 1961. When buying or selling it is worth reminding yourself about the 9 million that were produced! The immense popularity in the 50s, 60s and 70s means that today these lunchboxes simply aren’t that rare…
I mentioned before how one of the earliest tin lunch boxes was created in 1935 by Geuder, Paeschke and Frey and featured an image of Mickey Mouse. This was, in effect, one of the earliest meetings between utility, popular culture and technology. The utility was the fact that you could carry your food around in it; the popular culture was Mickey himself and the technology was the technical process of lithography.
The trend of applying popular images to lunch boxes using this technique didn’t really enter its prime until 1950 when the Nashville-based company Aladdin employed a top class industrial designer to create what became the famous Hopalong Cassidy lunch box. Priced at a (very reasonable!) $2.39, Aladdin sold over 600,000 units during the first 12 months after the launch of the product.
This was a massive boost for the company which had previously seen sales of only 50,000 per year. Production of the Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox continued for a number of years and today they have become collectors items fetching anything up to $1,000. If you search around the web on sites such as eBay you’ll find a few for sale. For some reason the majority seem to be from 1954. I’ve no idea why this is but if you know I’d really appreciate if you’d post in the comments section below and enlighten me!
During this time and the following decades the metal lithography process itself gained immense popularity not only in the manufacture of metal lunch boxes but also in other fields of contemporary culture and the marketing of consumer products. Canned foods featured many different designs and metal picnic baskets were printed with images of woven basket reeds or plaid textiles. These designs even got copied by artists and in 1962 American artist Andy Warhol used a semi-mechanized silkscreen process on canvas to produce his famous “Campbell’s Soup Cans”.
Whilst lithography has been used extensively by artists during the 20th century, for commercial manufacturers it was merely a technique used to increase the popularity of their goods – and therefore their sales – by imprinting already well known TV and movie characters onto their products.
In this article I originally intended to go into more of the history of lithography and the actual technology behind it. However, after some initial research I decided it was better not to venture there and simply point those of you who are interested in the direction of Wikipedia which has an excellent and extensive article on the subject.
On my hunt around the “interweb” I just came across this excellent article. Amongst other things it features an excellent interview with Stacey McCaffrey who owns Etsy.com store Vintage Jane. Interesting to see that she suggests that the reason lunch boxes are so collectible is nostalgia.
Well I have to say Stacy, I couldn’t agree more!
Please do read the interview – it is well worth 3 minutes of your time! Here is a link.
I also took a moment to search Etsy.com for products (never actually done this before!). Quite an assorted collection was returned but my favorite is this 1960’s Disney Studios Schoolbus box:
I just found this site which features a number of (eBay listed) metal lunch boxes from the 1980s. Ok, so there are some plastic boxes in there too but still a pretty impressive list don’t you think?
Star Trek, Gremlins and my all time favorite The Dukes of Hazzard which is listed for the tidy sum of $135.
In terms of price these are a world away from the collectables of the 1940s and 1950s but for me (as a 30-something) the 1980s decade raises the greatest levels of nostalgia in my heart! Actually, I am slightly surprised at how cheap some of these boxes are. $0.99 for a Mr.T? I wonder if the sellers of these items really know the true value here? I suspect the current owner of the “Vintage 1984 School Days Mickey Lunch Box Rare” does given that they are asking for $225 : – )
One lunchbox that I am really after is unfortunately not listed here. It is the Airwolf lunchbox. Out of the Knight Rider, Street Hawk and Airwolf series I much preferred the latter.
Overall, I think the jury is out on the 1980s as to whether it will become a classic and collectable decade. On the upside there are a lot of people with some real vintage memories of TV shows etc but on the downside there was an awful lot of memorabilia manufactured. I think we will have to wait until “supply” reduces as more boxes inevitably get lost and destroyed before prices will increase. Of course, this is one of the reasons why the tin lunch boxes of the 30s and 40s fetch such high prices at auctions: Supply was severely restricted due to the economic conditions during the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Tin lunch boxes first emerged over 100 years ago during the mid-19th century (David Shayt, National Museum of American History). Originally woven from straw, manufacturers later favored tin as the material of choice due to its robust and durable nature.
An important development in the early 20th century was the use of tobacco tins to haul meats. This, coupled with the subsequent invention of lithographed images on metal gave rise to the huge popularity of the many weird and wonderful tin lunch box designs which became incredibly popular with young people.
By the mid-1930s the first licensed character lunch box appeared on the market. Created by Geuder, Paeschke and Frey it featured a sliding tray, a handle and an iconic lithographed design of Mickey Mouse.
In retrospect, the period that followed this really can be regarded as the heyday for the tin lunch box. In fact everything was going swimmingly until the early 1970s when safety concerns (of all things!) contributed to its demise. Parents had become concerned that metal lunch boxes (by this time stainless steel lunch boxes rather than tin were the most popular) could be used as a weapon by children in the playground. Such was the ferocity of the protest that the Florida State Legislature eventually passed legislation on the issue with other states soon following suit.
Although there are undeniable benefits of contemporary plastic and vinyl designs (watertight, airtight and durable), if you’re anything like me the tin lunch box will always be your favorite! It gives me comfort to know that others share my feelings: Many of the early lithographed designs, especially from the 50s and 60s, have become surprisingly collectable. For example, a mint Isolina lunch box sold for $11,500 in 2003 at Chickens Go Moo, Inc auctions!
Always a sucker for nostalgia my all-time preference is actually for retro-looking shiny metal lunch boxes which were used so much by the American workforce during the early and mid-20th century. This is the design which I use 5 days a week at work. American was literally built on the tin lunch box!
I hope you enjoy this site and share my enthusiasm for a small but in my view important part of our history. I aim to continue building this resource over time and if you have any questions or comments I’d love to hear from you so please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I will reply to all messages.