Back to School in Style: What Makes a Lunch Box Collectible?

Jetsons Box
This lunch box is going for $1,200 on eBay.

Ah, back to school time: The new folder, the new clothes, and the new lunchbox! That latter was the pride and joy of many a kid when I was growing up, and now the embossed tin numbers can be serious collector's items.

As it happens, the most collectible of these correspond to the height of the mid-century, when Joe Eichler was developing the California suburbs and The Jetsons were on TV. (An original 1963 Jetsons box with thermos, by the way, wants $1,200 on eBay right now. Don't you wish you'd kept yours?)

So I got to wondering about what makes a lunch box collectible and, since this is the time of year for buying them, whether it would be possible to pick up something at Target that might someday command a price like that Jetsons box.

"I like the vintage boxes: 1950 to 1985. That's the golden years of boxing. They were non-ironic, made for kids to bring their lunches to school," says Mike Kaye, the founder of lunchboxcollector.com. Since founding the site in 2003, Kaye developed a pricing guide and an introduction to collecting.

Kaye says the market has changed since he founded his site, condensed into a hard core of maybe 100 or so serious collectors. But that's not to say there's no value in collecting lunch boxes anymore. It's just different. "It's really unpredictable. I have a guide I made and it says Annie is $30 and then I go to sell my own Annie and it fetches $100. It's like whoa, that changed," Kaye says. "As an investment it's not great. It's best to do because you remember or enjoy the show."

While the hard-core collectors will still pay top dollar for, say, a mint-condition Beatles lunchbox or a Yellow Submarine theme, most of Kaye's sales go to people who collect a genre and would like to add a lunch box. "The theme is what's going to sell most of them. "If you collect Star Trek stuff you're going to buy an original Star Trek lunch box and add it to your collection. I get people asking me every week, basically, for a specific box. It's often a birthday gift or something they collect in general."

Alas, the days of embossed tin boxes are pretty much gone. The Alladin company, of Nashville, closed its factory in 2007, and Thermos has largely stopped making them. "When I have people come and want to make one now, it's usually a matter of a plain silver tin with plain thermos that they want their decal on. But if you want it embossed, the old fashioned way, you have to do that in China, so it's not like you can do a small run of those."

When people do make new runs of classic boxes, they're made specifically as collector's items in a numbered series, Kaye says. They're not for toting food. "The ones in the stores today, they mostly do the plush. If they do the tin, it's usually one or two a year." But some new boxes do become collector's items, if they're unique enough or have the right theme.

"It would have to be a metal box. A thermos would help because that shows they really went into production for it. And it would have to be a popular theme like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Strawberry Shortcake, something that came back. Or a box that you've never seen, like Garbage Pale Kids or Pokemon, where you don't see a lot of boxes for it. Something like that would hold its value because they never made those during the retro era," Kaye says.

"The Simpsons did a box that's cool: It looks like the couch and then their heads are coming off the couch made out of rubber." Interesting personalities (Kaye gave the example of Lady Gaga) also frequently make for a collectible theme.

So this back-to-school season, choose a lunch box that works and that the child likes. It won't stay in collectible condition toting sandwiches to school everyday anyway. But if you spot an interesting one that makes you smile, it couldn't hurt to buy it and see what happens.