Published Online: April 28, 2004
Published in Print: April 28, 2004, as Federal File


Federal File

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Happy Meals

For students of a certain era, it would be hard to forget the metal lunchbox banging against their hips on the way to school, flipping open the top at noon to find a squashed peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, a shiny red apple, and— for the lucky—cookies.

Now, those who remember their "Gunsmoke," "Buck Rogers," or "Partridge Family" lunchboxes with fondness can see them in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington.

The 136 lunchboxes, Thermos bottles, and vintage lunch pails are, appropriately, displayed just outside the museum’s cafeteria, said David H. Shayt, the curator of "Taking America to Lunch."

The exhibit starts with examples of worker lunch pails from the 19th century.

"Dinner pails are sometimes the only representative object for a lifetime of service and industry and hard work in a factory," Mr. Shayt said.

In the late 1800s, parents began giving their children empty coffee or tobacco tins to carry fresh fruit, cheese, or bread to school. By the 1950s, the rise of TV offered manufacturers a source for themes and characters that pushed the metal box into its prime.

The containers "are surrogate objects for a host of serious topics" such as the state of the steel industry, entertainment, or nutrition, Mr. Shayt said.

But they’re also just fun. From the bright red "Woody Woodpecker" lunchbox to the more somber "Lost in Space" carrier, they all evoke distinct memories.

"There’s this mixture of wistfulness, longing, and desire for something left behind," Mr. Shayt said.

These days, the metal box has been replaced by soft, synthetic materials, and the themes are driven less by television than by toys and movies, said Frank Muci, the marketing director of Thermos LLC, the Rolling Meadows, Ill.- based company that is celebrating its 100th year and donated about half the lunchboxes in the exhibit.

"I had G.I. Joe," Mr. Muci said. "It’s kind of neat. Lunchboxes have kind of transcended the vessel that they are."

—Michelle R. Davis

Vol. 23, Issue 33, Page 26

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