Hot Collectable Lunch Boxes Preserve The Past

Dan Zieja collects stuff. Civil War weaponry. Picture discs. Autographs. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Odds are he collects it.

Photos: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

But of all the many, many things Zieja has stuffed into Melodies & Memories, his eclectic record store in this suburb of Detroit, the coolest has to be the lunch boxes.

All 3000 of them.

“I’m stopping at 3000,” Zieja says. “I’m not collecting metal lunch boxes anymore because there are only about eight ever made that I don’t have.”

Zieja, 54, claims he’s got the largest collection on public display in the United States. Maybe even the world. Still, it’s hard to fathom a number like 3000 when talking about lunch boxes.

Maybe this will help:

“If I went from kindergarten through 12th grade and took a different lunch box to school every day, I’d still have something like 500 left over.”

Six hundred and sixty, actually. We did the maths.

Zieja’s lunch boxes fill two rooms in the record store he opened 22 years ago. One is dedicated to metal, the other to vinyl.

“Vinyl lunch boxes are worth more because it’s hard to find them in good condition,” he said. “It’s just vinyl over cardboard.”

Although Zieja can tell you exactly how many lunch boxes he has and explain the historical or cultural significance of each one, he can’t tell you which one he bought first.

“Honestly? I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. “I’m like a junkman. I’ve just picked them up over the years.”

This is the first lunch box as we know it. Oh sure, the first of them appeared in the mid-19th century when people toted meals in small baskets and boxes. (Japanese bento boxes go back even further.) But this baby from 1935 is the first licensed character lunch box.

Geuder, Paeschke and Frey manufactured the small tin. It has a tray inside, but there’s no bottle. Those didn’t come along until later. Mickey Mouse Lunch Kits sold for 15 or 20 cents when new. Today they’ll fetch a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Zieja picked his up 10 or 15 years ago.

“I’ve got a friend in Rhode Island who is a lunch box dealer,” he says. “I got it from him. The Mickey Mouse lunch box is really scarce. It’s worth a lot.”

No, it’s not for sale.

The first lunch box based on a children’s TV show appeared in 1950 when Aladdin slapped a Hopalong Cassidy decal on a metal box. You could get it in red or blue. It was an instant hit, and Aladdin sold 600,000 of them – at $US2.39 a pop – in the first year alone.

With television catching on, manufacturers rushed to capitalise on tie-ins. The golden era of the lunch box had begun (manufacturers sold 120 million of them between 1950 and 1970), and TV-themed boxes would remain a staple.

This box is based on Supercar, a British sci-fi kids show that ran from 1961 until 1962. It’s another one of the many boxes Zieja picked up somewhere, somehow over the years. That’s usually how it happens.

“If I see one I don’t have, which is rare, I pick it up,” he says. “I guess I’m a complete-ist. I’ve got to have one of everything.”

Lunch boxes didn’t change much between the 1950s and 1960s, but the bottle inside them did. The first were steel vacuum bottles with glass liners and Bakelite cups. Those gave way to plastic bottles with foam insulation.

Plastic first reared its ugly head sometime in the 1950s when manufacturers started using it for the handle. The first vinyl lunch box appeared in 1950, and injection-moulded plastic boxes became increasingly common through the 1960s.

Metal remained the dominant material, however, making boxes like this Rocky and Bullwinkle model from 1962 extremely durable. This one isn’t for sale, but others like it will run you $US400 or more.

Beatles lunchboxes are especially valuable, with some fetching five figures or more when you can find them. This box is from 1968, and Zieja will let you have it for $US475.

“It’s the only lunch box I have three of,” Zieja says.

Speaking of the Beatles, Zieja has baseballs signed by each of the Fab Four. He spent years getting a complete set.

“Paul McCartney was the toughest to track down,” he says.

Kiss lunch boxes, like the band, waxed and waned in popularity over the years. Back in 1977, when everyone and his brother was buying Love Gun and Kiss was still a few years from irrelevance, this was one of the boxes to have.

Want one? It’s yours for $US300.

Lunch boxes from the band’s later years aren’t nearly as collectible. This one, commemorating the farewell tour that wasn’t a farewell tour, will cost you just 35 bucks.

This is an example of a “dome” style lunch box, which Aladdin introduced in 1957. It offered more space for artwork like the awesome action shot on this Lost In Space box from 1966 or ‘67.

Fork over $US500 and carry your lunch in style.

This Popeye-themed box from 1962 is one of the crown jewels in Zieja’s collection. Boxes in tip-tip shape are worth several hundred dollars.

“This is one of three original Popeye boxes made over the years,” he says. “It’d definitely be one of my favourites.”

The 1954 Superman is another favourite. It’s the holy grail of lunch box collecting and priced accordingly.

“A mint example sold for $US15,000 or $US20,000,” Zieja says.

The golden era of lunch boxes ended in 1987 when metal finally gave way to plastic. It seems somehow appropriate that the last metal box carried John Rambo’s likeness.

Thermos brought metal boxes back in 1998 but sells a relatively small number each year. Plastic boxes, like this one pimping The Empire Strikes Back, are cheaper to make.

Aladdin started embossing lunch boxes in 1963 to provide a raised surface for more engaging artwork. The first embossed box was Huckleberry Hound.

This Battlestar Galactica lunch box is even cheesier than the original show’s special effects. Fifty bucks takes it home.

Even bad TV shows got lunch boxes. This Fall Guy box is from 1981. Nice ones will set you back $US70 or so, but this one’s a little rough around the edges, so Zieja is asking $US40.

Aladdin made this Batman and Robin box in 1966.

“I collect Batman memorabilia,” Zieja says. “I wish I had a Batmman Utility Belt from 1967.”

The irony of Zieja’s lunch box collection is that he isn’t that crazy about lunch boxes. Sure, he likes them, but he isn’t passionate about them.

“My passion is baseball,” he says. “Baseball memorabilia is my big thing. I actually own Ty Cobb’s shaving kit, his pinochle set and one of his belt buckles.”

And then there’s the baseball cards. He’s been collecting them since 1963. Don’t forget autographed baseballs. Jackie Robinson. Babe Ruth. US presidents.

“I’ve got single-signed baseballs from every president from Hoover to Obama,” he says. “And William Taft. He was the first president to throw out a first pitch.”

This Star Wars box from 1977 looks like it’s been worked over by a Wookie, so it’s priced at $US50. A minty one will run $US300 or more.

Here’s another classic – a 1979 Buck Rogers box. Like the Star Wars box, it’s seen better days and is priced accordingly – $US50. Find one in mint condition and expect to pay three or four times that much.

Zieja’s private stash fills two rooms at the back of his record store. Those that are for sale are displayed around the shop, along with 700 picture discs, an interesting assortment of Beatles memorabilia (novelty Fab Four wigs, anyone?) and all manner of fascinating bric-a-brac. You could spend a couple of hours in his store looking at it all. Trust us – we did.

“I’m a collector. I’ve got a sickness,” Zieja says with a laugh. “A serious, serious problem.”

He’s kidding about that. He’s actually a down-to-earth guy.

“I’m a normal family guy with a wife and two kids,” he says. “It’s not like I go home and watch Star Trek every night.”

As for the rest of his collection of stuff, what isn’t tucked away in his record shop is kept at home.

“Someday my kids will have a big garage sale,” he says.

Image credits: Jim Merithew / Wired.com

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