Many of you likely remember that one of the most important choices you’d ever make before the beginning of a new school year was choosing just the right lunchbox. After all, Hong Kong Phooey might have gotten you through the 5th grade, but as a 6th grader, you needed a lunchbox that let classmates know you were more mature, and also much cooler. Which would you choose? Welcome Back, Kotter or Charlie’s Angels?

But that was the heyday of the lunchbox. Now, lunchboxes are considered works of art — at least to an audience of collectors and one impressive museum. Let us explain …

A Brief History of Lunchboxes

Lunchboxes for adults have been around since at least the Industrial Revolution when it became unfeasible for workers to return home for the mid-day meal. Even back then, your place in life seemed to be determined by the lunchbox you took with you to work — the rich carried their lunch in a fancy wooden box, while the poor carried theirs in recycled tinplate boxes and biscuit tins.

Image: Stuckey’s Corp. / Stephanie Stuckey

Thermos, a name that would become synonymous with lunchboxes, was the first company to market lunchboxes to schoolchildren. In 1920, the King Seeley Thermos Company was the biggest commercial producer of the “vacuum flask” that allowed workers to carry coffee or soup to work and keep it hot until lunch. Thinking that their vacuum flasks would also be a great way for kids to have a hot lunch at school, they produced the first metal lunchbox geared toward children. (In actuality, however, it was really more of a Thermos transporter than a lunchbox.)

It wouldn’t be until 1935 that the first lunchbox featuring a licensed character would appear on the market — an oval tin containing a four-color lithograph of Mickey Mouse, complete with its very own pie tray. Still, manufacturers were “out to lunch” for another 15 years before they realized that licensing characters for kids’ lunchboxes was big business.

From Hopalong Cassidy to John Rambo

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In 1950, Aladdin created the first lunchbox featuring a licensed television character — Hopalong Cassidy. At $2.39 each, the company sold over 600,000 lunchboxes (complete with its own matching vacuum flask) in its first year. After seeing the success of Aladdin, King Seeley Thermos decided they also wanted to get back into the business, and they produced their own Roy Rogers and Dale Evans version.

Things skyrocketed from there. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, schoolchildren carried more than 120 million lunchboxes to school featuring over 750 characters from television shows and movies, music and pop culture.

In the late 1970s, however, Florida parents petitioned schools to ban metal lunchboxes, claiming they were used as weapons in schoolyard fights. Ironically, the last metal lunchbox produced during the Golden Age of Lunchboxes was the Rambo lunchbox made by Thermos in 1985; the never-say-die titular character sports a hybrid rocket-propelled, grenade-launching M60 machine gun.

Pop Art for Your Pop-Tarts

That’s where Allen Woodall comes in. He’s the curator, owner, and resident “pailientologist” of Columbus, Georgia’s Lunchbox Museum. Interestingly, Woodall never owned a lunchbox as a kid; he went to grade school in the 1940s and carried his lunch to school in a paper sack. In fact, he didn’t buy his first lunchbox until around 1979 when he was at a flea market and saw three lunchboxes sporting some of the pop-culture heroes of his youth — the Green Lantern, Dick Tracy, and Batman.

Stephanie Stuckey with The Lunchbox Museum’s Founder, Owner, Curator and “Boxer” Allen Woodall.
Image: Stuckey’s Corp. / Stephanie Stuckey

Intrigued by the pop art that graced these metal “time capsules” (as he likes to call them), he started seeking out other lunchboxes. His collection grew so big, he opened a small museum above his Columbus radio station. In the 1990s, Woodall sold his station and moved the museum to a nearby farmer’s market. The Lunchbox Museum finally ended up where it’s located today, tucked in the back of River Market Antiques on Hamilton Road in Columbus.

Inside the museum, you’ll find rows and rows of shelves, stacked floor to ceiling with over 2,000 lunchboxes, thermoses, and food trays. Many “boxers” — collectors of lunchboxes — believe that Woodall’s museum is the most complete lunchbox collection in the world. Chances are, if a metal lunchbox was made sometime between Mickey Mouse and Rambo, you’ll find it at the Lunchbox Museum. In fact, even the Smithsonian Institute’s American History Museum purchased from Woodall some very rare lunchboxes for its “Taking America to Lunch Exhibit.” 

Browsing the museum, you might spot that Help!… It’s the Hair Bear Bunch lunchbox you carted to school every day. Or maybe it’s the Campus Queen lunchbox your sister took to school. Even that “Back in ‘76” bicentennial-themed lunchbox will, indeed, take you back to 1976, when you might’ve celebrated America’s 200th birthday by carrying your own red, white, and blue lunchbox on a class field trip to see the Freedom Train.

Image: Stuckey’s Corp. / Stephanie Stuckey

And if you’re thinking, “Man, that Happy Days lunchbox would be so cool to take with us on our next road trip to Milwaukee,” and Woodall has an extra one lying around the museum, he’ll sell it to you. (Yes, you can take the Fonz and your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to “Cream City” with you.) However, also be aware that you’ll be paying a little more than you paid for that original Happy Days lunchbox back in 1977. They’re fetching anywhere between $100 and $200 with thermos these days. A used one will set you back about $40 without the matching thermos.

The museum is located at 3218 Hamilton Road. It’s open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the admission fee is $5 ($4 for military and senior citizens, free for children 10 and under). However, during these uncertain times, be sure to call the museum ahead of your next Georgia road trip at 706-653-6240 to make sure it’s open and to check current visiting guidelines.

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Image: Stuckey’s Corp. / Stephanie Stuckey