Unpacking nostalgia: Thoughts on vintage lunch boxes

The 1966 King-Seeley Get Smart lunch box.

The 1966 King-Seeley Get Smart lunch box.

Trent:  If you’ve got to hold on to something from the sixties, peace and love sure beats a Get Smart lunch box
Daria:  Especially if the lunch is still in it.
-from MTV’s Daria

Yes, I know there’s a page on my site devoted to lunch boxes, but I’m going to go there again. While I’m at it, I may as well recycle that quote from Daria.

I’m not sure what it is, but there’s just something about a vintage lunch box. They’re kind of like canvases of what comprised kid culture at any given time. Metal boxes featured popular cartoons, TV shows, movies and bands. Some topics ended up being pretty obscure – like the lunch box for the 1979 move Black Hole.

My school days were from the era of both metal and plastic lunch boxes. With both of

The top and bottom of the lunch box respectively. The Chief not looking at all like Ed Platt is probably the only discrepancy, but that's a trend among collectibles. Vito Scotti's character in "Mr. Big" makes a cameo in the bottom scene.

The top and bottom of the lunch box respectively. The Chief not looking at all like Ed Platt is probably the only discrepancy, but that’s a trend among collectibles. Vito Scotti’s character in “Mr. Big” makes a cameo in the bottom scene.

those varieties being durable and parents being fiscally conservative, some of us found ourselves stuck hauling a box to school years after its novelty wore off. You had better hope by the time you were in sixth grade that you still liked the box you picked out in kindergarten.

Today’s boxes are soft and insulated. Some come with useful compartments to separate the food. While they’re all about function, the aesthetics just are not there.

The Get Smart lunch box was a collectible I had yearned for early on. Made in 1966 by King-Seeley, Nick LoBianco is credited with designing the art on the box. In addition to his work on many a 1960s King-Seeley lunch box, LoBianco also designed the famed Monkees’ guitar logo in 1966. He was also a ghost artist for Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. LoBianco worked on a number of Peanuts books and was the artist that drew Snoopy for the Met Life commercials.

Among the Get Smart collectibles I’ve come across, this item has the best graphics. The front has a cute image of Max, 99 and Fang. The back has a close up of Max in the foreground. In the background he’s trying to rescue a tied up 99 from a bunch of guys that look like Blofeld. A box in good condition will reveal that LoBianco decided to give Don Adams freckles.

The bottom of the box and sides feature scenes from the pilot episode ”Mr. Big,” while the top has Max and the Chief under the Cone of Silence. The only point to split hairs over is that the Chief doesn’t look like the Chief.

The lunch box is partnered with a thermos that was made the same year. It features the art from the back of the box.

Pricing

The sides of the box include the closet scene from Mr. Big and a representation of the opening door sequence.

The sides of the box include the closet scene from Mr. Big and a representation of the opening door sequence.

So, how much is one of these worth? That depends.

Lunch box prices are generally gaged on the condition of the box, how rare it is and — as I’ve noticed — who is authoring the price guides. Here are some examples:

• Warman’s Lunch Boxes Field Guide gives a price of $725 for the box and $95 for the thermos.
• Toys & Prices lists a GS lunch box at $575 and the thermos at $95.
• Meanwhile, in legitimate pricing, www.greatestcollectibles.com has a handy chart on lunch box values, as well as information on grading and rarity. They give a mint GS box with a grade of 10 a price of $320. Mint by the way, means the box must have its original tags. Near mint, which is pristine but missing tags, is worth $255. They also give the Get Smart lunch box a rarity ranking of R5, which means there is a strong market of boxes with 500 to 1,000 them known to be in existence.

While I’m in no means any kind of appraiser, I have spent more than 20 years scoping out collectibles. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

• A near mint Get Smart lunch box will fetch around $200 on Ebay.
• One that’s been knocked around nets around $50.
• The price of a thermos runs the gamut. Depending on condition, they fetch anywhere from $75 to $15.

If you want one, shop around and keep your eyes peeled, but don’t over pay for a lunch box or thermos in poor condition. People will try to sell boxes in poor condition for far more than they are worth. Max and 99’s faces should not be rusted off (yes, I’ve seen this). There also should not be any large markings going across the front or back of the box (yes, I’ve seen this for sale to the tune of $200). No. Just no.

The graphics on the Get Smart thermos. This one has a replacement liner and lid.

The graphics on the Get Smart thermos. This one has a replacement liner and lid.

Original parts
How much a lunch box is worth is also determined by whether it has its original parts.

This is more of an issue with the thermos. Does your thermos rattle? Sorry about that. The glass liners were known to break so replacements were offered – and can still be tracked down. For the Get Smart thermos, the original stopper and cup were red. Replacements are usually a beige color.

In terms of the lunch box itself, the original handle is red. I’ve seen replacements that are white.

Then there is the matter of the thermos wire. In many cases, you won’t even find a box with the thermos wire as it was lost long already. Instead you’ll just see some mysterious empty slots. For some reason, the Get Smart boxes were made two different ways. In some boxes the wire was at the bottom of the box and in others it was on the side.

Get Smart lunch boxes appear to have been made in two ways as the slots for the thermos wire are in different spots.

Get Smart lunch boxes appear to have been made in two ways as the slots for the thermos wire are in different spots.

How to treat a box
Boxes should be treated with kid gloves!

The number one lunch box enemy is water! Do not take Mr. Lunch Box for a swim because he’ll rust!

The number two enemy is a damp environment that promotes rust. Basements, garages and tool sheds are not good places for metal boxes.

The number three enemy is direct sunlight due to the fact that the images on the box will fade. This can be a challenge with where you display it. It’s best to keep the box away from the old bay window’s line of fire not only to prevent fading, but also to keep it from rusting.

If you’re going to attempt to clean it – be careful. It seems everyone has come up with their own advice on how to do that from water and vinegar to car polish. I make no endorsements on those suggestions. I have found that Swiffer dusting cloths can pick up a lot of the dirt without causing any problems.

Fun facts
• Mickey Mouse was the first character to appear on a lunch kit in 1935. This was actually a small tin – not the type of box Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were used to.
• The first metal lunch box as we know it was 1949’s Hopalong Cassidy. Made by Aladdin, this was basically a metal box with a Hopalong Cassidy decal on it.
• The fond days of metal lunch boxes ended in 1987 when King-Seeley cut production on the last metal box, Rambo. Manufacturers had began shifting to plastic boxes starting in 1972.
• Allegedly, the production of metal boxes ended not because a metal Popples box (1986) couldn’t compete with a plastic Rainbow Brite box (1983), but because a group of mothers complained that the metal boxes were hazardous and pressed Florida state legislature for a ban such lunch boxes. The claim was that kids could hurt themselves by bonking each other on the head with the metal boxes. This ruling on metal lunch boxes, however is appearing to be more myth than reality as actual proof of such a law is yet to be found.

The back of the Get Smart lunch box is the same image on the thermos.

The back of the Get Smart lunch box is the same image on the thermos.