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.


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.

Color me bad: The Get Smart coloring books

Three of the four Get Smart coloring books from 1965 and 1966.

Three of the four Get Smart coloring books from 1965 and 1966.

Coloring is all the rage at the moment – adult coloring that is. In that vein, and since I’m a bit swamped with all kinds of work and chores, the time is due for an entry on the Get Smart coloring books.

A colored in Agent 99 in her chauffeur's outfit from the pilot episode.

A colored in Agent 99 in her chauffeur’s outfit from the pilot episode.

Now referring to these collectibles in the plural, while technically accurate, isn’t exactly correct. Produced by Saalfield Artcraft, there were four Get Smart coloring books with publishing dates of 1965 and 1966. They each had different covers, but the guts on the inside were the same.

There was the yellow one — and the red one that looked like the yellow one except it was die cut along the top corner. There was also the blue one that didn’t look like either of the first two, but there was another red one that looked like the blue one.

Are you confused? Good. The first yellow/red cover design is Max and Fang with the dog’s leash wrapped around him. The second blue/red cover design is a photo of Max and Fang tied to chairs.

Through some resourceful ebaying, I finally managed to score three of them. All have been colored in and that is typical when finding one of these.

The art was drawn by comic book artist Sam Burlockoff. Born in 1924, his comic book work spanned the 1940s into the 1950s, primarily as an inker. In addition to illustrating other Saalfield coloring books, he also did illustration work for encyclopedias. Among the syndicated comics he worked on in the 1960s were Flash Gordon and The Saint. Burlockoff passed away in 2007.

In terms of continuity, Max is drawn to look like Don Adams – a few of the pages are take-offs on Get Smart publicity photos. Agent 99 looks cute, yet she does not quite look like Barbara Feldon. The Chief is given a full head of hair and a mustache. He looks more like Chief Quimby from Inspector Gadget rather than Ed Platt.

As for Saalfield Artcraft, its parent, the Akron, Ohio-based Saalfield Publishing Company, was once one of the largest publishers children’s materials in the world. It began publishing children’s books in 1899. Under Saalfield Artcraft, it produced the likes of coloring books, paper dolls and puzzles. The company went defunct in 1976, however, Kent State purchased the company’s library and archives in 1977.

A peekaboo into the coloring books. We've got 99 doing a new hair color, a sweet fluorescent hot air balloon and Max and 99 chasing after some sort of flying saucer.

A peekaboo into the coloring books. We’ve got 99 doing a new hair color, a sweet fluorescent hot air balloon and Max and 99 chasing after some sort of flying saucer.

As I mentioned before, if you get your hands on one of these – or any vintage coloring book for that matter – don’t expect them to be mint. I’m a bit of a research nerd, so I actually find that aspect interesting. The colored pages are a like a time capsule of a kid’s day back in the 60s. Which pages did they color? What colors did they pick? Did they stay in the lines?

I noticed some patterns. The first couple pages were usually always colored – then the coloring would peter off with the exception of a few random pages in the middle and at the end. Not that I can blame those choices – the best illustrations, in my opinion, were on the first couple pages. In two of the coloring books I found that the previous owners had colored in the pages displaying the “Captured Kaos Weapons.” Hmmm….

Two different approaches to the Kaos weapons. One young artist went with realism while the other gave the guns a more colorful look.

Two different approaches to the Kaos weapons. One young artist went with realism while the other gave the guns a more colorful look.

The coloring habit has recently proved to not just be a past time for little ones. If you walk into a store — and, at this point, one of any kind — you will likely find a shelf of adult coloring books. Inside will be pages of intricate patterns and repetitive detail ranging from paisleys and flowers to mandalas and animals.

I own several and they are a fun and relaxing way to spend time. I also have a bit of a compulsive art habit and spend all kinds of spare time drawing my own illustrations. Periodically I post my art on Instagram – feel free to take peeky-boo there (@ahaverstick86). For fun, I did my own take on a couple of the Get Smart coloring pages by adding some… enhancements.

Well, the kids got to color, so I wanted a turn too.

Well, the kids got to color, so I wanted a turn too.


From the bookshelf: The Get Smart Handbook

The Get Smart Handbook. This one is a little rough around the edges.

There’s a lot of stuff going on this summer – and it’s leaving me with limited TV time.

That’s OK. In less than five months my surroundings could go back into polar vortex mode so it’s best to live up da Region’s few tolerable months of the year.

This brings me to another look at a Get Smart collectible. It could be considered more Get Smart in print, but I’m throwing all the books, paperbacks and comics in the collectibles category.

The Get Smart Handbook by Joey Green could be considered a “newer” collectible, though it’s been more than 20 years since it was in print. Published in 1993 by Collier Books, The Get Smart Handbook features historical information about the show, an episode guide, character bios and lists of Control agents, Kaos agents and gadgets.

How to use the Cone of Silence. One of the many illustrations in The Get Smart Handbook

Comments from Don Adams, Barbara Feldon, Dick Gautier, Dave Ketchem, Bernie Kopell, King Moody, William Schallert, Stacy Keach Sr., Leonard Stern, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry can be found throughout the book.

However… it has been noted that there are few boo-boos in this book. Over the years, thanks to repeated fan viewing, it was discovered that a number of the gadgets and Control and Kaos agents in the series weren’t listed in the book.

For a complete list of all those wonderful things, visit Carl’s wonderful site at www.wouldyoubelieve.com

Since the book came out during Nick at Nite’s run of Get Smart, I tend to wonder if that network’s edits of the show may have influenced what’s in this book versus what’s not.

Still, I think the book tried to capture Get Smart’s sense of fun and makes a nice viewer’s guide. It’s written in a humorous style and includes few amusing graphics, like the content of 99’s purse and, my personal favorite, Cone of Silence operating instructions.

The Get Smart Handbook has long been out of print, but copies are available for purchase through Amazon’s book sellers.

The book’s author, Joey Green, was a former contributing editor to National Lampoon. He went on to write 50 some books, including his Magic Brands series. You’ll likely find one of those on the shelf where your mom keeps her library of household hint books.

There are two other Get Smart books published prior to this one – The Life and Times of Maxwell Smart and the Get Smart Files, but I’ll discuss those in another post.

This appears to be some sort of promotional material sent to book sellers. There's an order form on the back.

Now I’m going to wax nostalgic.

Every summer in the 1990s we would make a pilgrimage back to the East Coast. It was a 12 hour drive and back then we didn’t have hand held devices that could contain all forms of entertainment. I usually made due with my Walkman and a handful of cassettes — and maybe I could re-read an issue of Seventeen or YM during the course of the journey.

July 1993 was no different -except it was wretchedly hot. I remember two things about that vacation. One, we took a side trip into the mountains in northern Pennsylvania where it actually cooled off at night. Two, it was on this particular vacation that I purchased the GS Handbook.

Since it had just come out, I found it readily available in a Walden Books in south central Pennsylvania. I hadn’t been specifically seeking it – I just got lucky on that trip to the mall.

Needless to say, this kept me out of everyone’s hair for the rest of the trip. Maybe that’s why my mom was willing to plunk down the 12 bucks for it. I still remember paging through this book while we were staying in our cabin-esque motel room in the mountains. *sigh* In recent years my copy has become a bit dog-eared and I’ve had to tape the pages back inside.

This clipping came from an issue of USA Weekend. But here's what's weird – the book pictured is different than the actual Get Smart Handbook. I've wasted time with silly nitpicking on this matter before. Check out Smartian Controversy 7 at www.ilovegetsmart.com/debate.html

Exploding time bombs and Red Ball shoes

The Get Smart Exploding Time Bomb Game

I’ve been a busy girl here of late so I’m going to take a hiatus from episode blogs.

Instead I offer a peek at one of the older Get Smart toys – “Get Smart” The Exploding Time Bomb Game.

Fair warning: this entry is going to go off on few rabbit trails. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and grab some snacks.

The Exploding Time Bomb Game

The game was produced by Ideal in 1965. Some sources say 1966, however, my game clearly has 1965 printed on it.

Detail from inside the box.


An intact game includes a game board, a time bomb, 16 cards that assemble to form four Kaos agents, dice and four game movers in the shape of a tiny fedora wearing man. The mover is supposed to represent Maxwell Smart as up to four people can play the game, each being a competing Maxwell Smart. The Kaos agents are named Gunner Gus, Bomber Bill, Black Jack and Singapore Sam.


Scenes from the game board.

The box lid was illustrated by Ralph Pereida – except for the photograph of Max that was printed over it. Pereida authored a handful of drawing how-to books for the Grumbacher Art Library Series. I should have been familiar with those as my dad had a bunch of Grumbacher books from an art class he took.

According to Warman’s Americana & Collectibles, an intact game should fetch $75.

Now, the word “intact” is key when asking that price. Sadly my time bomb game is missing one key component – the time bomb. I’m also missing a couple of cards to the Kaos agents. I think I forked over between $30 and $40 for my game but certainly no more than that.

Yes it’s missing the time bomb, but I feel lucky to have this thing. Original Get Smart toys cost a pretty penny and when they do come up for auction on Ebay (which is ever so rarely) the bidding turns into all out war. 

I suppose I’m also lucky that when I bought the game, it arrived intact. I won this item on Ebay shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Everything was weird and awful then. Commerce was moving understandably slow. A week after Sept. 11 letters containing anthrax spores were sent to news outlets and two congressmen, killing five people and infecting 17 others. This certainly didn’t help mail delivery – or much of anything else at the time.

Don't in end up in the hospital.

The Red Ball Jolly Jets Treasure Hunt Game

Now here’s where I’m going to digress away from GS. It seems whenever I obtain a collectible game or puzzle I find some other junk in the box that doesn’t belong there.

The game board for the Red Ball Jolly Jets Treasure Hunt game.


When I opened up the Exploding Time Bomb Game, I found a small game board that resembled a treasure map and some tiny cardboard scraps with writing on them. I shrugged, threw it back in the box and left it sit for the last 14 years.

When I went to work on this blog, I found that random game board again and I took a closer look at it. My eyes zeroed in on two words at the bottom of the board: Mishawaka, Indiana. Seriously?

If you haven’t gathered, I live in Indiana and the one nearby metro area I enjoy spending time in is South Bend/Mishawaka. So this discovery merited more investigation on my part.

Called the Red Ball Jolly Jets Treasure Hunt Game, it was produced in 1964 by Ball-Band of Mishawaka. I’ve gathered, from a person that had the whole game on Ebay for about $20, that is was probably an advertising give away for Red Ball shoes.

Now let’s take a step back in time for a small history lesson. Ball-Band was formerly the Mishawaka Woolen and Rubber Company – which was incorporated in 1874. Its proper birth date is 1867 when Jacob Beiger purchased a wooden mill built in 1838.

The company’s main products over the years were rubber boots. The Ball-Band name came from the red ball added the black rubber band that ran around the top of their signature knit boot.

Among the variety of footwear produced were Red Ball Jets, a canvas rubber soled sneaker that was treated as the Air Jordan of its day. They were kind of like a pair of Chucks.

Sadly these shoes no longer exist. In 1950 Uniroyal became the parent company of Ball-Band. The company stopped making footwear and dissolved Mishawaka Woolen and Rubber Company in 1969. The plant closed in 1997.

There, now some of us have learned something new and a 50 year old GS collectible has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving. I wonder what other surprises I’ll find when I eventually go through the rest of my toys…

Here are a few more images of the Exploding Time Bomb Game:

Inside the box - some of my Kaos agents are missing.A close up of inside the box.The multi-colored game movers.

A close up of inside the box.

The multi-colored game movers.