Nostalgia and peanut butter: Traveling exhibit celebrates history of the lunchbox

By Tanjie Nash

Julie Rochell of Athens gets exasperated when she remembers her favorite lunchbox from her elementary school days.

"It was a Scooby Doo lunchbox and it was my favorite," she says.

She hesitates and takes a deep breath before relating the fate of her treasured lunchbox.

"I had a birthday and I had a spend-the-night party," she says. "For some reason we had it on a school night and the next morning my mother was trying to fix everybody's lunches and this one girl didn't have anything to take her lunch in so my mother gave her my Scooby Doo lunchbox."

She laughs as she remembers how angry she was at her mother when the other girl never returned the Scooby Doo lunchbox. But even as she laughs she sighs and says, only half-jokingly, "It scarred me. That was my favorite lunchbox. It had a Thermos and everything."

Julie -- and others with such vivid memories of a favorite long-ago lunchbox -- can revel in nostalgia with a visit to a newly installed exhibit at the Huntsville Museum of Art.

"LunchBox Memories" is a collection of 75 metal lunchboxes ranging from early 1860s makeshift versions through the lunchbox boom which began after World War II and continued through the 1980s. The traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution comes to Huntsville as part of 15-city national tour.

Peter Baldaia, chief curator at the Huntsville Museum, describes the show as "innovative and exciting" and "bringing to life America's unique popular culture."

And images of pop culture are woven throughout the exhibit with lunchboxes from the early days of motion picture and television heroes: Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger and Annie Oakley are a featured few; to music legends the Beatles to comic strip characters to later-day television and movie icons such as Superman, Fat Albert and Rambo.

"LunchBox Memories" features kiosk after kiosk of colorful containers with timeline information on the evolution of the lunchbox, which originated around the turn of the twentieth century during the American Industrial Revolution. The earliest lunchboxes were empty tobacco cans or biscuit tins put to a second use for the factory worker's mid-day meal.

By the 1910s, a rivalry had begun to develop between Aladdin Industries and American Thermos. As a result of that rivalry and the twists and turns the industry took as post-World War II America began to focus on entertainment, more than 120 million metal lunchboxes were sold in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

"LunchBox Memories" traces the rise of the metal lunchbox to its fall with the advent of the modern soft-sided containers of today.

Like Julie Rochell, many Athens residents readily recall specific lunchbox memories. It matters not whether those lunch containers were packed with peanut butter and jelly, bologna or leftovers from the previous night's supper. While the lunches themselves might be long forgotten, the lunchbox memories live on.

Donna Bryant remembers buying a new lunchbox with the start of each school year throughout elementary school.

"I had Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Winnie the Pooh and Snow White," she said. "Snow White was my favorite because I really like Dopey."

Donna's lunchbox memories include what might be referred to as "The Great Navy Bean Soup Incident."

"My Dad always made this Navy bean and ham soup that I didn't really like," she said. "One time he put it in my Thermos for lunch and I didn't eat it so the next day when he was making my lunch and asked for my Thermos I stuffed all that soup down the bathroom sink."

Later, when the plumber arrived to open up the pipes and clear the resulting clog, Donna's hidden soup secret was revealed.

"I never will forget the look on my Dad's face when the plumber opened up the drain and all those Navy beans were in there," she said.

Sonya Gordon remembers taking her lunch to school in her cherished Beatles lunchbox.

"Man, I wish I still had that," she said. "It was blue and had their faces on the side of it. I thought it was so cool."

Tracy Harrison does still have his old favorite lunchbox, a Land of the Giants model manufactured in 1968 by the Alladin company.

"Those things are collector's items now," he said. "And mine's in mint condition. It's still got the thermos bottle in it with the liner still intact."

Terri Gaston had a little yellow school bus lunchbox and both Cindy Pugh and Tammy Posey name Strawberry Shortcake versions as their favorite childhood lunchboxes.

Some folks in Athens who said they "brown-bagged it" as children still had memorable school lunch anecdotes to relate.

Lifford French remembers attending elementary school at the old Greene University campus.

"I had this classmate named George Rudder and his family raised hogs and processed pork sausage," he said. "In fifth grade we had this teacher named Miss Ethel Mason. George would always bring her a big package of that country sausage. That got him an "A" every time."

Mayor Dan Williams remembers carrying his lunch to school in a brown box with a plaid-striped lining.

"It was sort of a square box with a round top," he said. "I can almost still feel what the texture of it felt like. It had a little holder in the top for a thermos."

The mayor also relates a story his father often told.

"My Daddy went to the old Beechwood School out toward Clements and kids would bring lunch to school in old molasses tins and they'd set them up on the old heat stove in winter and my Daddy said the tops used to blow of the cans sometimes when they'd get too hot, right in the middle of class."

Lynn Anderson doesn't remember exactly what her lunchbox looked like but she does remember going through Thermos bottle after Thermos bottle.

"I had the same lunchbox for a long time," she said. "It wasn't pretty. I think it was just plain old black. I don't know how many Thermos bottles I went through. Back in those days they were made of glass. I was a bit of a tomboy and I guess I would forget it was in my lunchbox and so I wasn't very gentle with it. Mom finally said 'that's okay, you'll just buy your drink at school.'"

Quentin Anderson Sr. said he took his lunch to school in a lunch bag fashioned from a portion of an old feedsack.

"Back in the 1940s and 1950s you took those old feedsacks and used them again," he said. "They were patterned and you'd pick out which one you liked and Mother would make a shirt out of it."

"LunchBox Memories" remains on display at the Huntsville Museum of Art through June 15, when a 2 p.m., slide lecture will be presented by Allen Woodall, president of the Lunch Box Museum and the Museum of Southern Stoneware in Columbus, Ga., and co-author of "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Metal Lunch Boxes." For more information about the exhibition call the Huntsville Museum at (256) 535-4350 or 1-800-786-9095 or visit www.hsvmuseum.org.