The history of the lunchbox is said to begin about the end of the 19th century. Heavy duty metal containers were the first kind of lunchbox. They were designed to protect the workmen’s lunches, as worksites could be quite dangerous places.
In the 1880s, children also started using metal containers to take their lunch to school. It was packed in old biscuit or tabaco tins. Not until 1902 was a lunchbox designed for that purpose. In 1935, Micky Mouse was the first popular and wellknown character to adorn a lunchbox.
Your lunch box
Do you remember what yours was like?
I didn´t have a fancy lunchbox just a simple plastic container. The fancies were within.
The Bento Box
Bento Boxes go all the way back to the 12th Century. This was the time of the Kamakura era (1185-1333). The concept of pre-cooking rice was discovered – hoshi-ii which is cooked and dried rice, to be rehydrated when needed.
The Tiffin Box
Tiffin Boxes are delivered by an army of “dabbahwallahs”. They distribute the colour coded boxes remarkably efficiently to factories and offices every day in larger towns. In fact, the system functions so well, according to a calculation only one in six million does not get delivered.
The 2013 Bollywood film “The Lunchbox” is based on the Dabbawallah service.
It took a while before a lunchbox that was called so became available for children in the USA. After the Second World War some changes occurred in society, that meant children were often too far away from home to come back for lunch. However, the lunch box didn´t really take off until someone had a good idea. Which is always the way isn´t it?
1950 The manufacturer Aladdin Industries with its home in Nashville, thought of putting an image of a children´s television, radio or comic popular character on the metal box. The first inlay picture they used was of a television series called “Hopalong Cassidy”. Apparently 2.5 Million of them were sold in the first year.
It was like a snowball system: Every time a lunchbox with a new character on it came out, the children all wanted one, and their interest was constantly kindled by watching the shows on television. So, it was kind of a double whammy – the lunchboxes kept up their interest in the shows, which meant they always wanted to have the latest lunchbox edition. This idea soon spread and many other manufacturers followed the same concept.
In this video Allen Woodall takes us around his Lunchbox Museum in Columbus where you can see just how many film characters made it onto a box. The last original was made by Aladdin Industries in the middle of the eighties. It depicted Rambo. The story goes that some worried mothers in Florida asked for the lunch boxes to be taken off the market, because they were dangerous. Their children were using them as weapons. However, there seems to be no real proof to back that up. It was probably because plastic was conquering the kitchen essentials market and was much cheaper than metal.
The cornish pasty
One of the most delicious lunch boxes in the UK was the Cornish Pasty. It was a convenient low waste way of packing meat and potatoes. Originally the crimped pastry edge was how the miners held the pasty and it was thrown away after eating the rest. This meant that they didn´t have to wash their hands. But it got even more ingenious than that. The Bedfordshire Clanger, which looked like a giant sausage roll, had a savoury filling on one side and a sweet one on the other.
More about the Bento
It was not until 1885 that Bento Boxes could be bought at train stations. In the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan’s railway system came into being, the ekiben (“station bento,” or box lunches sold at train stations) appeared. The first ekiben – rice balls with pickled apricots inside – was reportedly sold in 1885 at Utsunomiya Station in the Tochigi Prefecture. Ekiben are still sold at Japanese train stations today in vast quantities. If not in the station then beside the station there is a convience store, which sells Bentos and other forms of pre cooked meals. When I visited my daughter in Japan, we often took advantage of this. However, in Japan the Bento Box was always not just about practicality, it was customary to show off your Bento in the office, which had been intricately put together by your wife or girl-friend. A beautiful Bento is a symbol of how much you are loved.
How the lunch box has changed
The lunch box has experienced somewhat of a revival in the last couple of decades. Globalization has brought the Bento and Tiffin box to Europe. The great increase of people working from home during the pandemic may cause these sales to dip. But then again, as reastaurants and cafés are closed, it´s a good idea to take a lunch box when you go out for a drive, walk or cycle.
These days when we are trying to reduce the constant use of plastic, a lunch box that you use again and again is ideal. Greta Thunberg should be happy about that.
When I was about ten, we visited my aunt and uncle in Las Palmas. Some days I was left to my own devices at home. I did not speak Spanish at the time and the cleaning lady didn´t speak English. I followed her around and we found some way of communicating. During her break she would offer me some of her packed lunch – bread and serrano ham, or some leftover Spanish omelette – truly delicious.
My mum really enjoyed cooking, as I have told you, so my lunchboxes were quite often filled with scrumptuous leftovers. I loved it when there was potato salad and chicken Mum´s roast chicken in there.
The Germans are particularly partial to packed lunches, not least because the bread and cold cuts in Germany are superb, but also because they, particularly the Swabians, can be quite thrifty. A friend of mine takes sandwiches on flights with her for the stopovers. Once she was stopped at a US Airport where the authorities found a salami sandwich in her luggage. “You Germans and your salami” he said, and discarded the sandwich, much to the despair of my friend.
Here are some ideas by “GoodFood” for filling your lunch box. Lunch box ideas
Melamed, D. M. (2016, 14. März). Lunchboxes Through the Ages. The Daily Meal. https://www.thedailymeal.com/lunchboxes-through-ages
The evolution of the lunchbox. (o. D.). Stuckonyou. Abgerufen am 15. Oktober 2020, von https://www.stuckonyou.eu/blog/the-evolution-of-the-lunchbox/
The History of the Bento Box. (2011, 11. Juni). Finedining Lovers. https://www.finedininglovers.com/article/history-bento-box