During the 1950s, Aladdin Industries established itself as one of the most prominent creators of lunch box art. But how did the company achieve such prominent status, what happened to it and where is all the artwork now?
1. The Growth Of Aladdin Industries
Founded in 1908 by a Chicago soap salesman named Victor Samuel Johnson, the company received its name from its main product, the kerosene “Aladdin’s” lamp. After successfully diversifying into cooking jars and dishes, Mr. Johnson sadly died in 1943 and was succeeded by Victor Johnson Jr. who diversified further into metal lunch box production and relocated the company to Nashville, Tennessee in 1949.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, executives in the entertainment industry had begun to heavily push the merchandise possibilities of their movie stars and TV cartoon characters. Usually, this meant partnering with manufacturers who could mass produce such items. Back at Aladdin, this trend was spotted very early on by Mr. Johnson Jr. who was keen to put Clarence E. Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy character on one of the company’s boxes. However, this idea actually got delayed until Vernon Church, Aladdin’s new sales manager, fully saw the potential, arranged a licensing deal and got the product to market. The artwork itself was designed by Robert O. Burton.
2. What Happened To Aladdin?
Leaving aside the small “slip up” of turning down a licensing deal with Roy Rogers, who later went to have tremendous success with rival American Thermos, Aladdin continued to do well. Although the heyday of the metal lunch box was largely over by the late 1960s or early 1970s, Aladdin grew its business organically and through an acquisition which strengthened its offering in the meals and drinks container market. The company’s success continued until the late 1990s when there were a number of poor management decisions. These would eventually prove catastrophic and in 2002 the Nashville operations closed its doors. Fortunately, in the same year, the firm was bought by Pacific Market International who turned the company around such that today it continues to thrive! It is a testament to the strength of the Aladdin brand that PMI decided to keep its original name.
3. So Where Is All The Aladdin Lunch Box Art Today?
Well firstly, according to the Lunchbox Collector’s 2011 Price Guide, there is probably a maximum of around 1,650 pieces of metal lunch box art that ever existed. This is because there were around 550 boxes manufactured between 1950 and 1987 with a maximum of 3 individual pieces of artwork on them (front, side and back). Crucially, it is suggested that approximately 80% of factories destroyed their art when they closed their doors years ago. So basically, there just isn’t much left and accordingly original artwork can easily fetch upwards of $1,000.
As far as Aladdin goes, the majority of their art was donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History based in Washington D.C. You can see their lunchbox inventory list online which was written by Alison L. Oswald in December 2003.
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…