Each new school year presented a fresh opportunity; a fresh opportunity to have the coolest lunch box in my class. In third grade I thought I finally got it right. My lunch box was bright purple with orange flowers splashed across the front. The interior was insulated with room for a matching thermos and ice pack. While lunch boxes may be more a fun accessory today, they are actually an important part of the history of our midday meal.


Lunch Box, Tin, 6″ x 8″ The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Bernard Carr, F0055.1949. Photograph by Alex Sniffen.


Following the industrial revolution, men were increasingly working in factories that were much further from their home than their self-owned or family-run trade shops were just twenty years before. With not enough time to both travel home for lunch and make it back to work, men began taking their noontime meal with them. [1] Most lunch pails, such as the one pictured, were made of metal or tin in order to protect a man’s lunch from the many hazards of the workplace. [2] This particular pail is actually stackable so its owner could keep each dish from mixing together in travel. The tin pail was also a symbol of class; if you were carting a lunch box to work every day, you were alerting the world that you could not afford to buy lunch. The status of one’s lunch continued to be related to their economic class for the next forty years. [3] As more and more women entered the workforce at the beginning of the twentieth century, going home for lunch was no longer an option for many children. If both of a child’s parents were working to make ends meet, there was not much of a chance that they could buy a hot lunch each day or even bring


“The Beatles” by Aladdin Industries, 1965. Photo courtesy of Harold Dorwin and Smithsonian.com

something from home. Charitable organizations such as the Starr Center Organization in Philadelphia and the Children’s Aid Society in New York began selling penny lunches or bringing lunches to local schools until their respective School Boards took responsibility. This began the process of shifting the duty of the midday meal from the home kitchen to the school kitchen. [4]


So if lunches were served at school, how did children start toting around novelty lunch boxes adorned with their favorite comic book or television show characters? With the rise of housewives in the late 1930s, children again had the option of bringing a homemade lunch. [5] Young children saw their fathers leaving the house everyday with their lunch all packed up and they began creating their own lunchboxes out of old cookie or cigar tins. [6] A Nashville ad agency Aladdin saw an opportunity and forever turned the lunch box into a public statement by adorning their product with images of popular culture. [7] Our midday meal may have migrated in and out of the home over the years, but the lunch box has maintained a prominent role in this history.

Sammy Smithson, Class of 2016

[1] Debra Ronca, “The History of the Lunch Box,” How Stuff Works, Accessed November 15, 2015, http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/menus/history-of-lunch-box.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gordon W. Gunderson, “National School Lunch Programs: Early Programs by States,” United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, Last Modified June 17, 2014, http://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/history_2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lisa Bramen, “The History of the Lunch Box,” Smithsonian.com, Last Modified Aug. 31, 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-of-the-lunch-box-98329938/?no-ist.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.