7 Things You Need To Know About...Vintage Lunchboxes



2018-02-08 16:17:22

This week's collecting guide tells you 7 things you need to know about collecting vintage lunchboxes.

Childhood nostalgia, beautiful graphics, and strange, half-forgotten TV shows – if you're a fan of retro pop culture, collecting vintage lunch boxes could be the perfect hobby for you.

They're also pretty good for keeping your sandwiches in.

If you want to start your own collection, here's what you need to know...

A brief history of collectible lunchboxes

(Image: Hake

(Image: Hake's Americana)

Since the 19th century, workmen had carried their meals in metal lunch pails, often bearing colourful adverts for brands of tobacco.

However, the idea of a pail aimed specifically for kids was born in 1935, when Walt Disney produced a metal 'lunch kit' featuring Mickey Mouse on the side.

Disney produced a couple more similar boxes, but it wasn't until the 1950s and the advent of television that lunchboxes for kids became a booming industry.

In 1950, Aladdin Industries of Nashville, Tennessee created a box featuring the popular TV cowboy Hopalong Cassidy, and sold 600,000 in the first year. King Seeley Thermos followed with a Roy Rodgers box, and the lunchbox craze was upon the nation.

For the next 35 years, half a dozen companies sold around 120 million lunchboxes to kids across America. They became must-have accessories, and 'cool' boxes could ensure you safe passage through the hallway.

But get caught with an out-of-date box, or something weird and geeky (like The Exciting World of Metrics), and it could be the kiss of death for your social standing (until the following term, at least).

By the late 1970s, the end was nigh for the classic metal lunchbox.

A group of concerned (and highly organized) mothers in Florida began campaigning to have them banned, suggesting they were being used as dangerous weapons in the schoolyard.

This campaign spread across the US, and manufacturers took the hint. They also realized that it was far cheaper for them to produce lunchboxes using plastic, so the ban wasn't too much of a blow.

The last metal box that rolled of the production line in 1985 featured Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, marking the end of the golden age of collectible lunchboxes.

Types of lunchbox

If you're about to start a collection, there a few different types of vintage lunchbox to look out for.


(Image: Hake

(Image: Hake's Americana)

Metal boxes were produced from 1950 until 1985, and are the most collectible vintage lunchboxes in the hobby.

The first metal boxes from the early 1950s were made of painted steel with a simple decal on the side, but it wasn't until 1953 that Thermos produced the first box using full-colour lithography.

From then on, artists from the major manufacturers produced ever-more creative box designs, spanning everything from Grizzly Addams to the birth of Disco, blockbuster movies and comic book heroes, teen pop heartthrobs and terrible TV shows.

The durability of steel boxes means that even today they can survive in top condition, with their colourful artwork unfaded after half a century – making them the ideal pop culture time Capsule.

Domed boxes

Domed boxes were introduced in the late 1950s, initially as a way of cutting manufacturing costs.

The price of licensing existing characters was so expensive that companies began producing their own generic boxes, based on themes such as pirates and space exploration.

To counteract the fact that they didn't have famous faces on them, these generic boxes were produced in a new dome shape, in the hope it would act as a unique selling point.

The wraparound art of domes boxes, and the creative use of their shape by designers, make them amongst the most highly prized and collectible boxes out there.

It also made them popular with kids, and the bright yellow domed 1961 Disney school bus box remains the biggest-selling lunchbox of all-time, having shifted a remarkable nine million units across the US.


(Image: Morphy Auctions)

(Image: Morphy Auctions)

Vinyl lunchboxes appeared in the early 1960s, and were predominantly aimed towards girls.

Popular boxes included bands such as The Beatles and The Monkees, along with Disney characters, Barbie dolls, and Donny and Marie Osmond.

However, their lightweight construction (plastic vinyl sealed around cardboard) meant they rarely withstood the rigours of the playground and were easily destroyed.

Although not as valuable as metal boxes, today some vinyl lunchboxes are far rarer as few survived intact over the decades, making them difficult to acquire in good condition.


(Image: Bremo Auctions)

(Image: Bremo Auctions)

Plastic lunchboxes first began appearing in the mid-1970s, and dominated the market from the 80s onwards once metal boxes had been banned from the playground.

Mass produced in the millions, these plastic boxes were also far less durable, and their graphics more easily worn away than on older metal boxes.

Today they are considered less collectible and far less valuable than vintage metal boxes. But as the generation of kids that grew up with plastic boxes grow older, and begin to collect memorabilia from their childhood, there's a good chance they could eventually rise in value.

What to collect

(Image: Smithsonian)

(Image: Smithsonian)

Collecting vintage lunchboxes is all about the nostalgia factor, so the best place to start is back in your own childhood.

Which lunchboxes did you carry to school?

Maybe you rocked a KISS lunchbox every day throughout 1977, or treasured your Cabbage Patch Dolls box.

Did you bring your lunch in a Ronald MacDonald box, wishing it was a Big Mac?

Or swap your Planet of the Apes box for a Six Million Dollar Man, and regret it for the rest of the year?

Maybe your parents were a little cruel, and saddled you with a Jonathan Livingston Seagull box, not knowing the damage it would do to your reputation in the playground.

(Image: Smithsonian)

(Image: Smithsonian)

If you spent years yearning for a David Cassidy box, or jealously eyeing up your neighbour's Empire Strikes Back box, now's your time to finally grab one.

The great thing about collecting childhood memorabilia is that you get to rediscover the things you lost years ago – and perhaps make a little money in the process!


You can build a collection of vintage lunchboxes around any theme you want, whether it's cartoon characters from the 1960s or boy bands from the 1980s. Here are just a few suggestions...

Outer Space

(Image: Morphy Auctions)

(Image: Morphy Auctions)

Lunchboxes with a space or sci-fi theme are amongst the most popular with collectors, and are always highly sought after.

There are dozens of space lunchboxes to collect, starting with the earliest in 1954, when Aladdin produced a box based on the popular TV show 'Tom Corbett, Space Cadet'.

Other space boxes based on TV shows and movies include 'Colonel Ed McCauley, Space Explorer' (Aladdin, 1960); Lost in Space (Thermos, 1967); Star Trek (Aladdin, 1968); Battlestar Galactica (Aladdin, 1978); The Muppets Pigs in Space (Thermos, 1977); UFO (Thermos, 1973); and, of course, Star Wars (Thermos, 1977).

There were also a series of boxes based on real-life advances in the space race, from the launch of Sputnik to the Apollo 11 moon landings. These include the 'Satellite' box (Thermos, 1958); 'Orbit' (Thermos, 1963); 'The Astronauts' (1969)

Classic TV shows

(Image: Paige Auctions)

(Image: Paige Auctions)

Think of a classic TV show from the 1960s, 70s or 80s; there's a good chance they made a lunchbox to go with it.

Some of the most collectible boxes date from the 1960s, from shows such as Star Trek (Aladdin, 1968); Bonanza (Aladdin, 1965); Hogan's Heroes (Aladdin, 1968); Flipper (Thermos, 1966); Batman (Aladdin, 1966); Land of the Giants (Aladdin, 1968); Laugh-In (Aladdin, 1969);and The Green Hornet (Thermos, 1967).

Shows from the 1970s with collectible boxes include Charlie's Angels (Aladdin, 1978); The Six Million Dollar Man (Aladdin, 1974); The Partridge Family (Thermos, 1971);; Happy Days (Thermos, 1976); Little House on the Prairie (Thermos, 1978); and The Waltons (Aladdin, 1973).

When it comes to boxes from the 1980s there are some obvious classics, including The A-Team (Thermos, 1983); Knight Rider (Thermos, 1981); The Fall Guy (Aladdin, 1981); The Dukes of Hazzard (Aladdin, 1980);

Cartoon characters

(Image: Morphy Auctions)

(Image: Morphy Auctions)

You'll find a huge range of cartoon boxes to collect, spanning hundreds of characters and five decades from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Aside from the dozens of Disney boxes (which could be a category of their own), some of the most collectible vintage boxes include Peanuts (Thermos, 1968); Yogi Bear (Aladdin, 1974); Road Runner (Aladdin, 1970); The Flintstones (Aladdin, 1962); He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (Aladdin, 1983); Huckleberry Hound (Aladdin, 1961,); Scooby-Doo (); Popeye (); Hong Kong Phooey (); Rocky and Bullwinkle (); The Jetsons (); Fat Albert

You'll also discover rarer boxes for old cartoons you're probably never heard of, like Underdog (); Atom Ant (Thermos, 1966); Inch High, Private Eye (Thermos, 1974); and The Chan Clan (Thermos, 1973).


As with any collectible, the value of a vintage lunchbox relies heavily on condition.

If you're buying a box in person, always take time to check it thoroughly for dents, scratches, rust and image fading.

Make sure there's no damage to the hinges or handle, and always open it up. The box may display well from the outside, but there could be some serious rust lurking inside.

Remember to check the condition of the flask, make sure it correctly matches the box, and take a look at the original tags (if the box still has them).

If you're buying online, you'll have to rely on the seller's photographs and description, so do some research on the box you looking to buy first.

This way you'll hopefully be able to spot any damage, restoration work or replacement parts which could affect the value.

Most collectors and dealers will grade their boxes on a sliding scale, from 1 (terrible) up to 10 (mint).

Ideally you should be looking at buying boxes graded 7 (Fine) and above, as these will display well without too many major noticeable issues. Anything lower will have clearly visible problems such as larger dents, scratches and rust.

Unless you're a completist, there's little point in owning a rare box if it's battering and scratched beyond all recognition.

However, it completely depends on your budget. The main advice for any collector is to always buy the best condition boxes you can afford.

Further down the line, trading and selling pieces from your collection can always help you switch up to higher-grade boxes.


As the craze for collecting vintage metal lunchboxes took off in the mid-1990s, reproductions and reissues began to appear on the market.

At first glance it can be tricky to spot the difference between vintage and repro boxes, but there are a few easy tips for making sure your box is a genuine original.

The bottom of each box should feature the manufacturer's name and a date, whether it's the production date or the copyright date. Check this date matches up with release date of the original box.

Reproduction boxes will also be slightly smaller and lighter than the originals, due to their different manufacturing processes.

Remember: no box made before 1974 will ever include a barcode, as they hadn't been invented until then.

Along with reproductions of original boxes, you'll also find hundreds of modern metal boxes featuring retro graphics for older TV shows and movies. They can seem like 'vintage' items, but often the show in question never originally had a box based on it.

Most valuable boxes

Every collector dreams of stumbling across something rare and valuable, whether it's a discovery in the attic or a local yard sale. So just in case, here are a few of the most sought-after 'holy grail lunchboxes to keep an eye out for...

Mickey Mouse (1935)

(Image: Hake

(Image: Hake's Americana)

The very first lunchbox aimed at kids was this Mickey Mouse 'lunch kit', made in 1935 by the tin toy manufacturer Geuder, Paeschke & Frey.

Featuring Mickey and a host of other early Disney characters, such as Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto, these boxes are considered highly rare and can fetch around $2,000 - $2,500 in good condition.

Hopalong Cassidy (1950)

(Image: Morphy Auctions)

(Image: Morphy Auctions)

Hopalong Cassidy was the first TV character to appear on licensed merchandise, such as toys, watches, bed sheets and this Aladdin lunchbox.

It was the first lunchbox based on a TV character, and the first to include a thermos flask – two innovations which saw it sell more than 600,000 examples in its first year.

These high figures mean that despite their age, Hopalong Cassidy boxes aren't really that rare – but because of its importance as the first true kid's lunchbox, they remain highly sought after and can sell for around $500.

Toppie (1957)

(Image: Hake

(Image: Hake's Americana)

These boxes feature Toppie the elephant, the mascot of the Kroger grocery store chain in the Dayton, Ohio area. During the late 1950s, regular customers could earn 'Top Value Stamps' with every purchase, then trade them in for free gifts, such as this lunchbox.

Today less than 12 Toppie boxes are known to exist, and those in top condition can sell for more than $6,000 each.

Superman (1954)

(Image: Morphy Auctions)

(Image: Morphy Auctions)

This iconic Superman box is truly the 'Holy Grail' for collectors, and holds the record for the most valuable vintage lunchbox of all-time.

Released in 1954, the box depicts Superman battling a giant robot on the front and rescuing Louis Lane on the reverse. In 2015, a mint-condition example sold at Morphy Auctions for $17,000.

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