I have to admit — I was a really lucky kid.
I grew up on a picture-perfect street in suburbia with two loving parents, an annoying younger brother and a pair of rambunctious Dalmatians.
The only difference between my upbringing and that of the typical American nuclear family is that our fence was chain-link instead of white-picket.
Otherwise, every day, my dad went to the office, my mom worked from home and my brother and I rode the bus to school. And every morning, my mother would pack our lunches.
My brother carried his carrot sticks to school in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchbox. My mom put my pudding cups in one that featured my favorite cartoon, Jem and the Holograms.
Unfortunately, my lunchbox did not stand the test of time… One harrowing day, it melted in the dishwasher. Had it lasted, I could sell it on eBay for $20… $40… maybe 60 bucks. Not a lifechanging amount, but I’d at least make back the purchase price.
Now — had I owned a metal lunchbox produced a decade or two earlier, I might have not only kept it intact but could have also collected quite a payday… I’m talking five figures.
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread
The concept of a portable food container has existed for millennia. Before metal and plastic, people transported eatables in woven baskets or ceramic pots.
The idea of an appointed “lunch pail” or a “lunch box” came about in the early 20th century when working folks started carrying their midday meal in tobacco tins.
Then some forward-thinking individual saw a marketing opportunity and began stamping lithographed images on the metal and marketing them for schoolchildren.
Thus, an asset was born.
But it would be another half century before things really took off…
In 1950, Aladdin Industries produced a tin lunch box aimed at children featuring the fictional rough-talking cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. This novelty quickly became a hot item for back to school — Aladdin sold 600,000 units in the first year alone.
With the increasing popularity (and ubiquity) of television in the 1950s and ’60s, the lunch box trend exploded. More and more manufacturers popped up, some of which started using different materials like vinyl and injection-molded plastic.
For the next 30 years or so, branded lunch boxes had their heyday. From Barbie to the Beatles, Mickey Mouse to Mickey Mantle, there was a time you could find a lunch box to suit every sensibility.
By the ’80s and ’90s, the trend had slowed down. But in the early 2000s, prices on vintage lunch boxes started to tick upward as interest in them as collectibles surged. Some people began rooting around in attics to see if they had held onto any coveted items.
Like a Jetsons lunch box made in 1963, valued up to $1,700… or the space-themed Orbit lunch box, which can cost up to $3,200 in mint condition… or a very rare (and little-known) 240-Robert lunch box, like the one that sold for $5,222 in 2001.
But can you guess the record holder for the most valuable lunch box of all time?
I’ll give you a hint: It’s faster than a speeding bullet… more powerful than a locomotive… able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…
That’s right — in 1954, Universal produced a lunch box that showed Superman duking it out with a giant robot. The price tag on this popular playground novelty curiosity? Up to $16,000.
Five figures for a food container. Like I said — who knew?
I certainly didn’t, or I might have chosen my preferred vessel more wisely. I could be sitting on a nice nest egg right about now.
You won’t often see these items hit any of the bigger auction blocks, although you will occasionally see rarer models at midsize auction houses like Heritage.
There are also folks like J. Louis Karp of Main Auction Galleries in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has approximately 200 vintage lunch boxes he plans to sell off around the holidays. (If you want to scratch that nostalgic itch — or buy a sentimental gift for someone — he takes bids by phone, online and in store.)
But most sellers (and buyers) do just fine on sites like eBay. The five-figure payouts will be further and fewer between, but a few hundred dollars here and there is nothing to sneeze at.
And if you have a vintage vinyl lunch box, you could be looking at a bit more. Vinyl doesn’t hold up as well as plastic or metal, so it’s more difficult to find one in good condition, which makes it worth more when you do.
Lucrative lunch boxes… who knew?
Lucille St. John
Managing editor, Unconventional Wealth
P.S. What was your favorite lunch box growing up? Was there one you always wanted but never got? Do you still have yours — or are you saving it to sell on a rainy day?
Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org — along with any other stories you might have about collectibles from your youth (before anyone knew they were collectibles). You just might appear in our next mailbag.
Lucille St. John
Lucille St. John is the managing editor of Unconventional Wealth. A gentlewoman and a scholar, Lucille never received much in the way of a financial education. But what she lacks in fiscal knowledge she makes up for in taste.
She’s going to take you with her on her unconventional wealth journey — starting from...