WASHINGTON – Only one piece of Americana has spanned from the Pennsylvania coal miners of the late 19th century to the “Disco Fever” of the late ‘70s,keeping bologna fresh and soup warm.
The lunchbox has come in many shapes and sizes in the past 100 years,and in its honor the National Museum of American History with Thermos LLC debuted the Smithsonian's latest exhibit Tuesday,“Taking America to Lunch.”
Situated,appropriately,near the museum's main dining area,the Main St. Café,four glass cases hold 136 lunch pails and thermoses decorated with images inspired by Hollywood,TV and sports.
“The lunchbox you carried was a part of your identity,” said Brent D. Glass,the museum's director. “There is a certain power of association with the values of working-class life.”
The exhibit contains not only the brightly hued likes of Roy Rogers,the Flying Nun and ‘70s singer Bobby Sherman but also converted food tins that were used as early as 1880. Crude pails were constructed from metal buckets and finished with rope to keep hardy meals warm for the noontime whistle.
“We try to tell the story of our country … what it has meant to be an American,” Glass said. “The lunchbox has an amazing story to tell.”
June Lockhart,who played the mother in the “Lassie” TV series joined other lunchbox celebrities to open the exhibit,which will remain on view indefinitely.
“It's thrilling just to be in the Smithsonian,” said Shirley Jones of the “Partridge Family” TV show fame. “It's my favorite place in the world.”
Jones,with her ‘70s style blond shag,is immortalized on a lunchbox as the driver of the Partridge Family's psychedelic school-bus. She said people still bring her lunchboxes to autograph at concerts.
Some of the exhibit's highlights include a 1908 thermos-sealed tennis trophy,a Hopalong Cassidy box (the first character ever portrayed on a pail) and a 1962 Barbie vinyl kit.
Designers not only drew on pop-culture for inspiration but also from historical events. In the ‘50s and ‘60s,metal boxes were decorated with cowboys and astronauts,and in the ‘70s,scenes from the Cold War were painted in grayish green hues.
Thermos donated 28 historic metal boxes and accompanying vacuum bottles,and the rest of the exhibit came from the Smithsonian's permanent collection. Thermos paid an average of $300 to $400 to buy some of the boxes in the collection,several on eBay.
“As you look back over the past 100 years,it is fascinating to see how lunchboxes were such a piece of Americana,” said Rick Dias,Thermos vice president. “Thermos is deeply proud of its place in American history.”
He isn't the only one.
“They bring back a lot of memories,” said Jeffery Landes,54,a physician from central New Jersey who has been collecting toys since 1975.
Landes purchased a mint condition 1954 Superman lunchbox for $11,999.99 on eBay in 2000.
Legendary Harlem Globetrotters player Meadowlark Lemon said he looks forward to the day when his grandchildren will walk through the Smithsonian,see his image going in for a lay-up and think,“That's my pappy.”
“It won't hit for a while,when you see something like this that's going to be around forever. It puts it in perspective,” said Lemon. “We were young,and it didn't mean for us then what it means now.”