I owned this Six Million Dollar Man lunchbox when I was a kid. Sadly, I don't have it any longer. But artist and designer Dee Adams does, along with Fat Albert, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Smurfs, Pac-Man, Kung Fu, and more than 400 others. She's still searching for the Julia lunchbox though. Collectors Weekly interviewed Adams about the cultural history of lunch boxes and the design of these artifacts from playgrounds past. From Collectors Weekly:
Collectors Weekly: Did the designs change much over the decades?
Adams: When lunch boxes first came out, people mostly referred to them as lunch pails. They weren’t for children at all; they were for adults. Early metal lunch boxes had a dome shape, and very few of those are still around. The square metal lunch box came later. Some of the really old lunch boxes that you’ll see floating around are not very graphically beautiful; they’re more utilitarian. Graphical representation of pop-culture icons, TV shows, cartoons, and that sort of thing came later.
The idea of tying lunch boxes to pop culture started with a company called Aladdin. They had the market wrapped up from the late ’50s until maybe the early ’60s. Then, another company, American Thermos, which most people know as the Thermos Company, came out with some of the first boxes decorated on all sides.
In the early ’60s–from what I understand having talked to other collectors–Aladdin created 3D lunch boxes. They wanted to push the illustrations out from the flat metal surface by embossing the designs. There’s a Fantastic Four lunch box from that period where it seems like The Thing is literally going to punch his fist through the side of the lunch box.
I’ve heard that in the early ’70s, a group of Florida parents banded together and declared that metal lunch boxes were too dangerous to be used by kids. That was when the decline began. The story is that the lunch boxes started being made out of plastic because companies were responding to parents who were saying, “These are dangerous. If the kids get into fights, they could hurt each other with them.” But it’s also possible that manufacturers figured out that plastic lunch boxes were cheaper to make.
Thermos, I think, was the last company that sold a metal lunch box. Their last one was a 1985 steel lunch box with a Rambo design, which is big with collectors.