Posted on Sat, Aug. 07, 2004

 

Memories of lunch


Containers carry reminders of TV shows, school



Staff Writer

 

It's Friday, the last free weekday before school begins. Mark Powell is spending it getting a history lesson.

"Daniel Boone, he had a son, Israel, a daughter too, and awife, Rebecca," his father Tommy Powell of Columbus explains to the 11-year-old.

"They were on my television every Thursday night."

As Powell speaks, he recalls even more about the show he loved as a youth in the 1960s.

"Fess Parker was great and I believe, yes, I'm pretty sure, Jimmy Dean had a small part in some episodes."

What has sparked this examination of pop culture, if not pioneering, is what Powell is holding in his hands. It's a small metal lunchbox with the likeness of Parker as Boone on its cover.

"I had one just like this," says Powell, 46, area director in the Phenix City office of the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley.

"Daniel Boone was popular. You wanted to be cool so you had what was popular."

But even Boone rode high for only a short time. "There was 'Batman' with Adam West, 'Bonanza,' 'The Green Hornet' was a favorite, and 'Star Trek' was big but I was never much of a Trekkie," Powell said.

Allen Woodall smiles as he views the pleasure Powell is having finding all of these among the collection of more than 2,000 lunch boxes he has on display at his Rivermarket Antiques and Art Center on Hamilton Road.

"You know," says Woodall, "kids used to bang their lunchboxes, break them, to be sure their parents would get them a new, more popular one the next year."

Beginnings

Lunch boxes as we know them -- decorated with entertainers and entertaining characters -- really didn't come about until the 1950s when television caught fire. Woodall, 70, a 1954 graduate of Columbus High, remembers "brown-bagging it."

"The boxes were just plain, usually black, but then someone decided to put Hopalong Cassidy on one," he says, gripping that model, "then three years later, Roy Rogers did the same and the floodgates were open. The lunch box was actually the size of the early TVs so it was like the kids taking the TV with them."

The proof is in the seeing as Woodall is surrounded by a history of television. There's the "Bionic Woman," "Welcome Back Kotter," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and "The Land of the Giants" to name a few.

"Wow!" says Powell. "The "Dukes of Hazzard."

But his son is busy checking out the "Star Wars" collection.

One unusual lunch box from 1977 shows King Kong standing not on the Empire State Building but on the towers of the World Trade Center. "The value tripled after Sept. 11," Woodall says.

As did the one featuring the Bee Gees after the death of Maurice Gibbs.

It was in the mid-1980s when the metal boxes were replaced by plastic. "Some mothers in Florida said children were using them as weapons," Woodall says.

And now most are vinyl with insulation inside. Many don't even feature a Thermos-type drink container.

"It's just not the same," Woodall said, sighing.

Memories

Billy Jackson, 45, of Phenix City has little difficulty recalling his favorite lunchbox.

"It featured Batman with several villains such as the Joker and Riddler," says the Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club, Phenix/Russell. "It was really good stuff but I was always more interested in what was inside. Once the state began the free lunch program I quit bringing my lunch."

More parents are opting for leaving the meal preparation to others.

Powell says his son doesn't bring his lunch. "There's better food and more variety than when I was in school," he says.

Marcy Grady, 30, who lives in Harris County, believes her daughter, now in kindergarten, will probably not take hers. "I'd probably forget to give it to her," laughs the fund development and public relations director for the Concharty Council of Girl Scouts.

But she does remember a box she had. "It was the Incredible Hulk. I was kind of a tomboy."

Mary Barnum, 46, of Columbus, a chef at the Olive Branch, says most of her lunchboxes were plain, "just like a construction worker carries," but her younger sister had one with a character from the comic strip "Peanuts."

"Snoopy -- now that was a fine lunch box," she says.

James Patrick, 64, of Columbus, a former assistant superintendent with the Muscogee County School District, grew up in rural Uniontown, Ala., where not too many children had lunchboxes, and some who did "were ashamed."

Especially one, who was known as "Mr. Peanut Butter Man." He was ridiculed for what he brought for lunch each day. But also, says Patrick, for the box he brought it in. "It was covered with flowers," he says.

Hot boxes

Few boxes are decorated like that today. Boxes featuring characters such as Spiderman, Scooby-Doo and The Hulk still fill the shelves at stores like Target and Wal-Mart. One Big Lots store had already sold out of Carebears by Friday, and anything Disney was still going strong.

"Though it's a few years old, Lion King is still very popular," says Mike Dobbs, a vice president at Lunchboxes.com based in Los Angeles. "A lot of young kids aren't as finicky as older ones or adults who must have something different every few months. That's one reason that Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers and even Pokemon are still big sellers."

And it's mostly children, kindergarten through the fourth grade, that get the boxes. "More fun than a paper bag," Dobbs says.

His company sells lunchboxes that are metal, plastic and vinyl. "Collectors," he says, "are the ones most interested in the metal ones."

And teen girls.

"They use them like purses," Dobbs says.

Which explains why rock stars such as Marilyn Manson, Iron Maiden and the late Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana are found among the many sold.

There's something for everyone. Dale Earnhardt can be found on a lunchbox, as can Shrek -- very hot, says Dobbs -- Sesame Street, the Sex Pistols, Vince Lombardi, Kill Bill, Easy Rider, Buzz Lightyear and SpongeBob.

"There's one called Kim Possible," says Dobbs, "which has a panel on front that is a place for a mirror, comb, etc., for girls. It's popular."

While Woodall has a preference for the old metal cases, he says it would be wise for parents to keep hold of the soft vinyl ones as well.

"Ten years from now," he says, "they'll be collectibles too."

And a good way to start a history lesson.