Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service


Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.


Lunch Box Memories

Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger, Bullwinkle and Rocky, Indiana Jones. What do these famous characters of television, comic strip, and film share in common? All have graced the sides of yesterday’s metal lunch box.

Like an old song, a metal lunch box takes us back in time, recalling school days or workdays, favorite foods, a friend. Yet, the boxes can move us beyond personal reminiscence. They comprise a kind of national memory, with illustrations reminding us of important themes in American popular culture. With their vibrant images, these boxes reintroduce us to our challenges, our dreams, our heroes, ourselves. A lunch box was not merely a lunch box, but a statement of who we were.

Lunch Box Memories tells the story of the metal lunch box, from its humble beginnings in the 1860s to its demise in the 1980s. It follows changes in the appearance and design of the lunch box, from the strictly functional tins and pails of our agricultural past, to illustrated metal lunch boxes with dazzling treatments of contemporary media stars, to today’s plastic and vinyl containers. The exhibition also touches upon the 75-year rivalry between two major companies, American Thermos and Aladdin Industries.

Drawn from the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and various lenders, the lunch boxes featured in the exhibition include some of the rarest and most significant boxes available to collectors today. Highlights of the exhibition include: the Mickey Mouse Oval (1935), the first character lunch box; Hopalong Cassidy (1950), the first box based on a well known TV hero; and The Beatles (1965), the first metal lunch box to use pop music performers, embossed with their 3-D portraits, and individual signatures.

Lunch Box Memories recalls the times and places, the heroes and heroines, the fads and fantasies of our youth—a time when we began to define our choices, our ideas, and ourselves.



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