Picks and Pans Review: The Fifties and Sixties Lunch Box

updated 01/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Scott Bruce

Bruce, a Boston-based (and Seattle-born) writer, tends to exaggerate the importance of his subject a mite, as if the decline and fall of many a civilization has been traced through the history of its children's lunch boxes. Between 1950 and 1970, he writes, more than 120 million lunch boxes were sold in the U.S., and for baby boom youngsters, "A provisioned lunch box was equipment as essential as a rifle had been to earlier pioneers—a shield against an uncertain future, a badge of membership, a friend." He also overdoes his captions, describing, for instance, a 1967-68 GI Joe box showing a frogman this way: "Hasbro's action doll is shown rehearsing for the mining of Haiphong harbor." There is some amusing trivia though. He credits Aladdin Industries' Hopalong Cassidy from 1950 as the first example of a TV character being used as a lunch box illustration. He notes that a 1954 Howdy Doody box eventually had to be pulled off the market because it showed Howdy with Princess Summerfall Winterspring and the actress who played her on the show—Judy Tyler—had just defected to grownup fare, playing opposite Elvis Presley in the movie Jailhouse Rock. Bruce also quotes box artist Elmer Lenhardt's exasperation at having to redo the Dr. Dolittle design six times because the movie's star, Rex Harrison, kept being dissatisfied with the way he looked. (Another artist, Nick LoBianco, similarly remembers that "Diahann Carroll was a bitch about her Julia box.") Most of the fun is in just looking at the pictures of the boxes, though, and trying to remember why it was that anyone would have wanted to be seen carrying a Twiggy, The Flying Nun, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Paladin (Have Gun, Will Travel) ox Gomer Pyle box to school. There was obviously no fathoming that nerdiest of containers, the plain, no-celebs-at-all plaid box, as Bruce says: "In the blackboard jungle, the lunch box, reflecting one's identification with a fashionable character or show, was a passport to either social acceptance or, as in the case of Red Plaid, oblivion." (Chronicle, paper, $14.95)

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