MARK BENNETT: The lunch boxes we carried — a reflection of American pop culture

Classic: Thermos made this tin lunch box in 1966, illustrated with scenes from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” TV series, broadcast from 1964 to ‘68 on NBC. It is one of 200 lunch boxes and containers in an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.Courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of American History

To the best of my recollection, there were no secret agents attending Prairieton Elementary School in the late 1960s.

One kid did tote a “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lunch box to school almost every day, though — me.

I was never duly sworn in with the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, but would have if that secret international intelligence agency accepted 7-year-olds, and if it had been real. Instead, the fictional spy agency was the basis for a ‘60s TV series on NBC that I watched avidly.

That lunch box was real, though. Thermos equipped those solid tin, rectangular boxes with a metal snap on the hinged lid, a black collapsible carrying handle and a matching, glass lined “Man from U.N.C.L.E” drink container. And the scenes painted on the front, back and sides depicted caricatures of the secret agents battling bad guys in car chases.

When I lifted the lid in the school cafeteria, I usually found my mom had packed my favorites — a dill-pickle-and-mayonnaise sandwich, soda crackers and peanut butter, an apple or celery sticks, and a Thermos full of milk.

Occasionally, I bought a school lunch, usually when pizza was on the menu. Otherwise, I hauled lunch in a box protected by cartoon secret agents, at least until junior-high-school coolness drove me to brown paper bags. (Sad, yes.)

Classmates carried fun lunch boxes, too. A buddy’s featured his beloved Green Bay Packers dueling with the rival Chicago Bears. Others sported images of Barbie and TV’s “The Jetsons” and “Get Smart.” Each represented artistic visions of pop culture in the Baby Boomer era, transported to school and back in youngsters’ hands.

As 14,200 kids headed back to Vigo County schools this week, along with thousands of others to Wabash Valley schools, lunch boxes look a bit different now. Fabric often covers the exterior of an insulated main compartment inside, with mesh pouches for ice packs to keep food and water bottles cold. Characters from “The Avengers,” “Frozen” or “Toy Story 4” may grace the outside.

The Vigo County schools’ cafeterias serve an average of nearly 10,000 lunches a day, meaning about 4,000 kids bring their own from home, said Bill Riley, the VCSC’s director of communications.

Lunch boxes were pervasive a half-century ago. More than 120 million were sold in America in the 1950s and ‘60s, according Scott Bruce, author of “Lunch Boxes of the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

MARK BENNETT: The lunch boxes we carried — a reflection of American pop culture

Courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of American HistoryRelic: The “Lost in Space” 1960s TV show themed lunch box from 1967 featured a dome lid, reminiscent of the adult worker’s lunch pails. “Lost in Space” was one of dozens of pop culture themes for metal and vinyl lunch boxes produced from the late 1950s through the 1980s. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a lunch box exhibit near the facility’s cafeteria.

Today, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., houses an exhibit of more than 200 lunch boxes dating back to the Civil War. The bulk of its contents, though, come from the late ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

“It’s quite a diverse collection,” said Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, curator for the museum’s “History of Education” collection.

Lunch box themes weren’t limited to television shows and movies, though those dominated. A few at the Smithsonian carry political connections. (It’s hard to imagine Nixon-Agnew or Pat Paulsen for President lunch box covers.) There’s a “World of Metrics” lunch box, seemingly for budding scientists. Classic, dome-shaped lunch pails used by coal miners in the 1920s and ‘30s are included.

Some couldn’t be used today, like the 1880s picnic-basket-shaped lunch box emblazoned with an Sensation Smoking Tobacco Co. logo.

Schaefer-Jacobs used a homemade lunch box in the 1960s, crafted from a cedar cigar box and covered with family postcards she pasted on. “I remember wrapping sandwiches in aluminum foil and putting them in it,” she recalled.

Schaefer-Jacobs also pointed out that many children in that era didn’t carry lunch boxes because they walked home to eat, then returned to school. Others used sacks or got school lunches. The rest carried the old tin lunch boxes that essentially reflected the times, with style. Many were designed by commercial artists, such as Robert Burton, who painted the characters Hopalong Cassidy, Bucaneer (on a box shaped like a treasure chest) and dozens more.

“There was definitely an artwork component to a number of them,” Schaefer-Jacobs said of the ‘60s and ‘70s boxes.

Their subjects range from The Beatles to Steve Canyon, space travelers, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Zorro, Dick Tracy, G.I. Joe, Porky Pig, Twiggy, Snoopy’s dog house, Dr. Suess, Fat Albert, Grizzly Adams, Wonder Woman, Six-Million-Dollar Man, the Brady Bunch, Partridge Family, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and more.

“It does give you a clue into pop culture in this country during that time period,” Schaefer-Jacobs said.

Later versions from the 1980s and ‘90s are made of hard plastic or soft nylon. One 2000 lunch box is a throwback with Clifford the Big Red Dog on its outside. Some blend nostalgia and present-day interests, like the everlasting “Star Wars” series.

Fittingly, the Smithsonian places its lunch box exhibit on the path to its cafeteria. It includes a 1967 “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” box. Now, if the museum cafeteria carries pickle-mayonnaise sandwiches, I might have to make a road trip.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.