As we’ve mentioned previously on this blog, people who are searching the internet for “metal lunch boxes” – or similar and related phrases – are usually interested in either buying a lunchbox for day-to-day use, or, are collectors looking for information on auctions or prices.
With this in mind it is interesting to delve a little deeper into the trends and demographics of these online searchers.
How do we do that, I hear you ask? Answer: Google Insights!
Google Insights is a free and fascinating little tool which tells you all about how many people are searching for a given phrase and how the trend changes through time. Finally, it allows you to see where people are making those searches, e.g., in North America, Australia, Europe, etc.
So for a little bit of fun, let’s take a look at some of the more common phrases that people would search for in our area of interest.
First, if you go to Google Insights and enter the term “tin lunch boxes” then you are presented with this graph:
Now, all very interesting you might say, but what does this prove? Well firstly we can see that the long term trend is fairly stable through time. However, what is very apparent are the spikes which seem to occur in the second half of each year. This of course confirms what many of us lunch box enthusiasts know already, which is that interest peaks during the back to school period that runs approximately from late July to early September.
If this data is correct – and we’ve no real reason not to believe it – then it shows that web searches on this phrase peak in August every year and are in fact more than double the level of the rest of the year! For collectors, this is very important as many of them have said that they see auction prices for vintage pieces increase in the weeks during and after this period.
The tool also allows you to display more than one search term at a given time. The following graph shows a comparison between the previous one (in blue) and the search phrase “metal lunch boxes” (in red):
We can see that this new term shows the same seasonal pattern but has a greater number of total searches.
Finally, the output shows the “regional interest” and again this quantifies what many of us already suspected – namely, that the interest in this collectors’ niche is predominately US based:
Obviously, the good folks in the United Kingdom also have a passing interest too! It would be great to delve further into this and look at trends for individual designs like “Mickey Mouse lunchbox” or “Hello Kitty Lunch Box”, but unfortunately the Insights tool tells you that there is not enough data!
It is a testament to the popularity of lunch box collecting that the United States is home to several lunch box museums. Generally speaking they have a fairly low profile and so I thought I’d mention three of them here at Tin Lunch Boxes HQ so you know to call in next time you are passing by!
Clarke’s Collectibles Lunch Box Museum
This wonderful collection of over 700 boxes is Debbie Clarke’s creation. Debbie is a retired teacher and her website has several fantastic photos of parts of her collection as well as the museum building itself. Although the site is perhaps a little thin on detail she is also an active trader on eBay where there is some more information about her life and how she got started. You can find that here. As for the museum itself, it is located at 3674 E Hwy 20, Nice, California, Lake County. The building was the old Nice firehouse and was transformed by Debbie and her husband Duane. Please note that it open for private tours only which can be arranged directly with Debbie by calling 707-274-9952.
Etta’s Lunchbox Cafe & Museum
LaDora Ousley originally starting buying up lunchboxes in order to store cassette tapes. This clearly blossomed into an extensive collection now consisting of well in excess of 800 items! It looks like a great place to visit because not only do you not have to pre-book but you can also enjoy a bite to eat in the adjoining cafe. I suspect that looking at all those lunch boxes is enough to make anyone hungry! Here is a great You Tube video filmed in the Museum in New Plymouth, Ohio:
Last but certainly not least is Allen Woodall’s Lunchbox Museum in Columbus, Georgia. Whilst in no way diminishing the fabulous achievements of Debbie and LaDora it has to be said that Allen’s collection is simply massive! So big in fact that it holds the record for the largest collection in the world! The museum is situated above a country-music radio station inside the International Marketplace, 318 10th Ave. Columbus, GA. 31901. This is probably the ultimate destination for us lunch box enthusiasts, partly because of the sheer size of the collection but also because Allen Woodall himself is considered a major authority on metal lunch boxes having authored one of the few books available on the topic.
I’m sure there are more museums around the world and potential new ones from private collections which could be opened up to the public. I’d particularly be interested in any collections that are located outside of the US. This would be especially interesting because tin lunch boxes themselves are intrinsically American. If anyone knows further information on this, please do leave a comment!
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.
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.