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.
If you type the phrase “metal lunch boxes” into Google or a similar search engine then you are probably looking for one of two things: Either you are interested in collectible lunch boxes or you just wish to purchase a product for everyday use.
Of course, purchasing a box is very straightforward. There are a ton of specialist retailers that you can find online as well as more generic sites such as Amazon and eBay which have many items listed.
However, getting started in collecting metal lunch boxes is somewhat harder as although there is plenty of information available it tends to be widely scattered so finding exactly what you are looking for is often difficult. With this in mind here are 3 tips for all of you who are thinking about starting a collection:
1. Check the Vintage & Cross Check the Price.
Prices on online auction sites can be a little baffling sometimes. Often the seller has discovered a long lost lunchbox in his or her attic or garage and has decided to sell to raise some extra cash. In these cases list prices may be inappropriate and although this means that they are often too high it is sometimes the case that the seller has not realised the true value of the piece they are selling! For this reason rule #1 is to always cross check prices! For example, if the box is listed on eBay then try checking on Amazon and vice versa. If in real doubt then consider consulting a price guide.
2. Consider Seasonal Factors.
The prices of vintage metal lunch boxes can fluctuate throughout the year. The time at which prices are most likely to be inflated is during the Summer Back-to-School period. This is of course when parents are busy equipping their children with all the kit they will need for the new school term and this of course includes lunch boxes! I would speculate that this process invokes a certain degree of nostalgia in many parents who then proceed to go hunting for vintage pieces on the net!
3. Watch Out for Reproductions
Many of the classic vintage pieces from the 1950s and 1960s proved so popular that they are still manufactured today. The giveaway is obviously if you find more modern vinyl or PVC boxes but sometimes replicate metal lunch boxes are still made. Some examples, include Disney School Bus, Hopalong Cassidy and the Roy Rogers metal lunch boxes. In terms of the latter a total of 7 version were produced in the years to 1957. So if you were interested in buying one of these then take some extra time to make sure of the exact year.
Good luck, and please don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comments section below!
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.