I had traveled to Columbus, Georgia, to see the Lunch Box Museum, where 2,000 examples are on display. Mr. Woodall explained that although his real passions are antique cars and vintage bottles, this particular obsession started about 40 years ago. He was at an antique show and spotted vintage lunch boxes featuring Dick Tracy and the Green Hornet. The colorful graphics instantly took him back to the radio shows of his youth, where crimefighters chased bad guys, as kids listened in front of the Philco. Buying these steel beauties was all it took to spark a new hobby. He started hunting for more.
His timing was just right. The metal lunch box vogue that had dated back to the 1950s had played out. Even though three generations of children had transported their peanut butter and jelly to school in pressed-steel style, mothers increasingly complained that kids were using the boxes as weapons. And indeed, some youngsters were eager to swing their Peanuts lunch pails at the school bully.
“So,” as Mr. Woodall once said in an interview. “The industry went soft.” Plastic lunch boxes replaced the old steel ones, which were abandoned to yard sales and flea markets. Allen snapped up as many as he could find.
Perhaps I can be forgiven for boasting that collectors were into recycling years before everyone else.
Think of a cartoon character or a TV show, and there was a lunch box for it. Almost as much as a child’s choice in clothing, the lunch box was a personal statement, a signal to the world of youthful identity. Tough kids carried G.I. Joe, or the A-Team. Cool kids toted their sandwiches in boxes sporting the Fonz or Evel Knievel. TV addicts supported their favorite shows by eating their lunch with The Beverly Hillbillies or The Munsters or The Flintstones.
The musical mod set showed their colors with the Beatles or the Monkees. An earlier generation of western-obsessed youth rode into the cafeteria with a Hopalong Cassidy lunch box, or one with Roy Rogers. A girl wielding a Wonder Woman box sent a clear message that she was not to be messed with. The Strawberry Shortcake lunch box, by contrast, may have conveyed a different message.
I have not yet come to terms with what my Pigs in Space lunch box said about me.
Back to the museum in Columbus. I paid my $5 admission fee and parted the velvet curtain that separated the collection from the antique mall where it was housed. From the moment I stepped inside, I was back in the third grade cafeteria, ready to munch on Pringles and carrot strips and guzzle whole milk. Just like at J.H. House Elementary in the ‘80s, I was surrounded by lunch boxes — but this time they were on shelves lining the walls: Knight Rider next to E.T. next to Heathcliff the Cat.
Scores of old TV trays featuring Pac-Man, Mr. T, Rambo and others hung near the ceiling. Lighted display cabinets contained the rarest treasures: lunch boxes shaped like buses, scarce ones made of vinyl that seldom survived the playground, metal gems depicting such cartoon icons as Dudley Do-Right, Underdog and the Jetsons. The nostalgic joy was palpable. Everywhere I looked, I saw an old friend. I soon had an overwhelming urge to eat a baloney sandwich.
The Lunch Box Museum may not be for everyone. It is not fully air conditioned. It is hard for the staff to get around to dusting all 2,000 exhibits. It is easy to trip over the hundreds of duplicate boxes on the floor, all tagged and available for purchase. There are awkward throwbacks to a less sensitive era, where kids watched cringeworthy cartoons like Fat Albert and Hong Kong Phooey. Plus, it’s a long drive to Columbus.
But I hope a buyer can be found to keep this kitschy collection together. It’s a monument to one man’s passion, and a living encyclopedia of five decades of pop culture. It’s also a snapshot of the perennial need among children to express themselves. In fact, as soon as I got home from this road trip, I went on eBay and found a 1978 Muppets lunch box just like the one I had. Complete with the original Kermit thermos. Then I saved up and went after a Bullwinkle box — in glorious yellow vinyl. My Pringles never tasted so good.