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Collecting Mania: Vintage Lunch Box

Updated on March 20, 2011

Although many consider the collection of antique and vintage lunch pails a fad driven by nostalgia, the fact remains that these items are fetching extremely high prices at auctions, both online and brick and mortar. The lunch pails which are adorned with the icons of America's culture, including musicians, television and movie stars, and the various heroes from comic books, are heartily sought after by collectors who see their investment gaining value year after year.

It was late in the nineteenth century when the first marketing of the plain and traditional lunch kits began in earnest. These kits were composed of a box with a dome top and a cylindrical container for coffee (which only later on became known as the Thermos) in the matching set. At the beginning of the 20th century the metal lunch kits were downsized for the use of children at school lunches and swiftly became popular. In 1935, the Gender, Paeschke & Frey Company, in Milwaukee printed an image of Mickey Mouse on one of their lunch boxes and the trend to include theimages of the favorite celebrities and characters on children's lunch boxes was duly launched... or should we say lunched.

Artist Robert O. Burton in 1949 began painting depictions of Hopalong Cassidy which were to be included on various lunch boxes manufactured by Aladdin Industries in Nashville. Their major competitor, the American Thermos Company of Norwich soon marketed a fully lithographed lunch kit which was adorned with the image of the then wildly popular Dale Evans and Roy Rogers.

Character lunch boxes which are the items in the greatest demand saw their prices skyrocket to outrageous heights in the Eighties but have returned to sanity in the last couple of decades. Later designs in mediocre condition will sell for about fifty dollars while early designs in superlative condition can fetch up to a thousand dollars. Complete sets are much sought after and desirable as the glass-lined thermos units had a tendency to shatter.

A number of collectors focus on themes such as science fiction or westerns while others tend to look for items which fit a chronological era. When there are two overlapping interest points, both theme and era, then the prices become astronomical. Disneyana memorabilia collectors can easily spend several thousand dollars for a 1935 Original Mickey Mouse movie poster.

Garage sales and flea markets are the best places to find bargains, although keep in mind that in these settings, the lunch boxes will most likely be dented and well worn. The truly mint items are to be located in online auctions and brick and mortar specialty shops, but you'll pay going market rate for the lunch boxes you'll find in those locations as the sellers are well aware of their worth.

You should avoid cleaning lunch boxes with conventional household cleaners as their chemicals can act to help dissolve the ink and ruin the collector's value of the item. The best way is to wipe very gently with a cloth that has only been dampened with water. Make sure that the lunch box is completely dry afterwards to help avoid rusting and discoloration. Always keep your collector's lunch box out of harsh sunlight as just a few minutes of exposure can measurably fade the color away, along with the value!


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      5 years ago

      Oh no, I've missed you again! I've been here for a few days but been on a filary hectic Berlinale regime I'm going off to Asia at Easter so may not make it back until May. If you're around then we must have tea and cake. Happy travels!

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      5 years ago

      Why on earth would I have street signs on my lunch box??? David Cassidy would have made me happy . The Partridge Family lunch box is awemsoe!! Thank you Kevin for getting that for me .. Street Signs??? Really Mom ???? I'M A GIRL !!!!!!! David Cassidy/Keith Partridge was dreamy!!! Come on !!!!


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