Arts » Feature

Lunchtime At The Library

Or, what's in the Barbie box?


I went back to elementary school at Gallery L.

At lunch today, I sucked on the end of my Twinkie and stared at my I Dream of Jeannie lunchbox. The little vixen sat cross-legged on the satin cushion inside her bottle, her arms raised and crossed, her belly button in coy retreat. She winked at me. She waits inside my TV for my return home this afternoon for another episode at 3:30.

Oh, forgive me. I lost time there for a moment. About 40 years.

Lunch Box Memories can do that to you. For us baby boomers, and for those generations just before and after, this show of 75 metal lunch boxes at the downtown library will carry you back to the cafeteria.

This show will spur memories of carrying, or making fun of those who carried, these little steel boxes. You once carried a lunch box. If you never carried a lunch box -- and you did, don't say you didn't -- you eventually suffered the sniggers and jeers of the much cooler crowd. One of the less painful rites of passage. Very soon after that you brought lunch money, stowed the lunch box or just left Jeannie at home.

Forgive me, I digress again.

Lunch Box Memories, brought to us by the good people at the Smithsonian Institution, is a lesson in America's last 100 years of lunchtime. The show runs through September 26 at Gallery L in the Main Library downtown.

The lunch box began, like so many other iconic American marketing vehicles, with a damn good idea. Soon after our cities began to siphon off families from the farm, lunch boxes were born. Americans were on the move and knew they couldn't get home for lunch. Tobacco tins and scrubbed lard pails were the original containers used by inventive workers and their children to keep sandwiches close by and mash proof.

Steel fabricators saw an opportunity. Using the 300 patents issued between 1860 and 1920 for inspiration, manufacturers created a new market. The first clunky boxes, which to our 21st century eyes now resemble sheet steel microwave ovens with handles, were pared down, made sleeker, smaller and lighter. Two superior modern designs soon dominated the market: a rectangular box and a domed box, both with handle, clasp and gasket. These similar designs served admirably as mass transit for ham and Velveeta on white bread for nearly a century. With the help of the Thermos Company and Aladdin Industries, the lunch box became an American cupboard staple. In the 50s, more than 120 million metal lunch boxes were sold in America. A humble art form and massive advertising tool was born.

The first painted images were generic representations of space travel and kids at play, or reproductions of favorite comic strip characters like Dick Tracy or Joe Palooka.

TV arrived and things changed. Lunch boxes became little mobile billboards for the most pervasive cultural phenomenon of the last half-century. Hopalong Cassidy was the first TV-inspired lunchbox, with 600,000 selling in 1950. That gun-toting cowboy started an avalanche. Other savvy desperados and cowgirls came down off their fences to blaze new trails to the marketing bonanza: Roy and Dale and trusty Trigger, the Lone Ranger, Annie Oakley, Wild Bill and, later, Pa Cartwright and his boys. These cowboys roped a passel of young'uns and were the first to use the illustrated lunch box as a marketing tool.

The mobile tin box followed the lead of the big flickering box for the next 35 years. What Hopalong began, Rambo finished. Sylvester Stallone, with his signature scowl and rocket grenade launcher in tow, graced the last sheet steel lunch box. The consensus spoke that year: Metal lunch boxes and angry children could be a fractious mix. The boxes could be used as weapons. Projectiles! Injuries could, and probably did, result. Lawyers were summoned, school boards convened, consultants were hired. Either the sheet steel boxes or the Twinkies had to go. A no-brainer. In good form, with a nod to the concerned parents, Rambo escorted the little tin world off the playground with a Bang!

Between Hopalong and Sly, the lunch box images shifted with the fluid grace of the TV sweeps. From Howdy Doody to Looney Tunes, through Popeye, Superman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., to Laugh-In and Sesame Street, the little lunch box was a static image for the big box waiting for kids at home. TV walked across the playground and into the lunchroom swinging in our little hands, more ubiquitous than bullies, as reliable as Friday fishsticks.

The boxes from the 60s are the best, a time that coincidentally coincides with my own brief fling with the lunch box (thermos optional). In 1965, if you toted a Beatles or Monkees lunchbox, you were in. My personal advancement progressed from Howdy Doody to Roy Rogers to Bonanza. My final epoch replaced Little Joe and Hoss with Illya Kuryakin, my main man from U.N.C.L.E.

The last lunch box carriers were the first couple of generations growing up on TV. In the mid 80s, plastic and vinyl boxes, backpacks, and fast food replaced the little metal boxes. Before that, only school cafeterias, offering deliciously deleterious fast food, managed to ding and dent the venerable metal lunch box market.

By the time Yellow Submarine, Twiggy and Laugh-In became the newest advertisements swinging in the hands of a million school kids, I knew those other 6th graders were only poseurs, teenage wannabes. Every kid close to Junior High School who wasn't surgically bound to his mother experienced this painful epiphany.

By 1968, the box had become too conspicuous an emblem of actual planning, too much baggage for a free-spirited radical like me. That box was an embarrassing reminder of a middle class of Americans I no longer recognized as my own. I was too cool. A peanut butter and jelly on white bread could not be wrapped in Purple Haze.

But I couldn't throw my Dream of Jeannie away. She stayed on my shelf hidden behind a Procol Harum album cover till I left home.

These boxes at Gallery L are static visual diaries of our time in front of the blue flickering light, little tin souvenirs from our days suckling sit-coms, and annoying reminders of our continuing intention to wean ourselves. Maybe to you they are. To me, they're fond memories of peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

Lunch Box Memories is on display through September 26 in Gallery L of the Main Library, 310 N. Tryon St. For more info, call 704-336-2725 or visit

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