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Food for Thought

"Compact and Ingenious": Lunchboxes, Dinner Pails, and Other Ways We've Carried Lunch

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This post was written by former Lunch Hour NYC intern Caitlin Dover. Caitlin is a writer and editor based in New York City; she recently received her master's in material culture from the Bard Graduate Center in New York.

How do you pack your lunch? Chances are, you and your kids rely on an assortment of reusable plastic containers that you tote daily to work or school. That practice of packing one's midday meal goes back at least as far as the first half of the nineteenth century, when industrialization prompted workers to find ways to eat their "dinner" in or near their places of work. But the form of lunch containers has shifted; tin "kettles" or pails, lunch baskets, modified tobacco boxes, and various incarnations of lunch boxes—all have been carried by American workers and school children over the years.

In 1850, George Foster, a close observer of New York life, wrote about the daily round of the so-called "Bowery g'hal": "She rises before the sun... swallows her frugal breakfast in a hurry, puts a still more frugal dinner in her little tin kettle (they call 'em pails in Yankeeland) and starts off to her daily labor in the press-room, the cap-sowing or the book-folding establishment..." "Kettle," "pail, " and "bucket" seem to have been fairly interchangeable terms for a common type of nineteenth-century lunch container. House Furnishing Review thoughtfully described this item in 1893 (when it was already somewhat dated) as a "...tall, straight-sided, round tin pail, into which was set a tin dish about half as deep and slightly flaring, so that it projected a little above the edge. The cover fitted into this dish, and upon the top of the cover was a circle of tin, like a short section of cylinder, upon which a tin cup was carried. The cup, inverted, telescoped down over the holder. This dinner kettle is still sold, but there are now a dozen varieties in the market."

This ubiquitous contraption became the symbol of the blue-collar worker in 1900, when President McKinely won a second term under the campaign slogan "Four More Years of the Full Dinner Pail." The same year Munsey's magazine wrote of workers,"The dinner pail is their caterer," adding, "In New York, the lunch basket is little used... Usually, each workman has a flask of cold coffee or tea; or it may be that the coffee or tea is in an ingenious compartment in the top of the lunch pail."

This fascination with "ingenious" compartments carried over into lunch boxes, marketed as conveniences for school children, workers, and picnickers at the turn of the century. Carrying one's lunch in a box wasn't new: Tobacco tins had been repurposed as children's lunch containers for some years.[1] But boxes such as the charmingly named Bon-Vee-Von represented something more advanced. A 1903 ad for the Bon-Vee-Von boasted, "It is a compact and ingenious affair made of strong metal, with several compartments for solid food, a pint flask for tea, coffee, or soup, an alcohol lamp, and a space for knives, forks, napkins, toothpicks and similar articles."

One thing the modified tobacco tins had over such up-to-date products was decoration. While some early lunch boxes did incorporate stamped-metal embellishments, it took the advent of film to turn the lunch box into a promotional canvas. A 1935 "lunch kit" bore an early iteration of Mickey Mouse; fifteen years later, Aladdin introduced a red metal box bearing a decal of Hopalong Cassidy. American Thermos retaliated in 1953 with the first fully lithographed lunch box—a Roy Rogers-themed "school lunch kit" covered with faux wood grain.[2]

Metal lunch boxes gave way to plastic ones starting in the 1970s, when concerns about the safety of the metal boxes led to legislation that limited their use.[3] If anything, attention to lunch-container safety has only grown since then. We can now tuck our sandwiches and carrot sticks into all kinds of BPA-free, washable, recycled and recyclable containers. My favorite is this colorful new spin on the pail from Oots!, a Santa Fe-based company run by Dutch designers. Like so many of its lunch-container predecessors, it has a convenient handle, and compartments for the various components of a meal. What more could any Bowery girl (or boy) want?

[1] Bethanne Patrick, John Thompson, An Uncommon History of Common Things (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2009), 45.

[2] Bruce Scott, The Fifties and Sixties Lunch Box (San Francisco: Chronicle, 1988), 9.

[3] Bethanne Patrick, John Thompson, An Uncommon History of Common Things (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2009), 45.

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