Lunch Box Museum
From the Eisenhower 1950s to the Reagan 1980s, a metal lunch box was a key accessory for any grade school kid. It told your peers that you were cool enough to appreciate Bobby Sherman or The Bionic Woman, while it neatly housed a meal of your choosing (with help from Mom).
And if another child coveted your pudding cup or denigrated your TV hero, the steel box could be wielded in a panicky arc as a superb skull-bloodying truncheon.
The reign of metal lunch box terror ended in the 1980s when the industry went soft and plastic, according to Allen Woodall Jr., owner of the Lunch Box Museum (and co-author of the definitive collectors guide to metal lunch boxes).
"A bunch of moms down in Florida said, 'Kids are fighting with these things. These things are dangerous weapons!'" Allen said. "Then it just spread all over the United States. They quit making them. They banned them."
Fortunately for posterity, Allen began collecting metal lunch boxes at about the same time. He no longer knows exactly how many he has, but they number in the thousands.
To get to the museum, you first have to walk through Allen's "barter room," where he displays his duplicates (sometimes 4 or 5 deep) for trade or sale. Then it's into the museum itself, just a big room -- but a room where all four walls are lined with shelves of lunch boxes six tiers high, arranged alphabetically from Adam 12 to Yoda.
More lunch boxes hang from the ceiling and are carefully arranged on chairs and tables. No skulls have been dented with these treasures (although weaponized examples might exist in the barter pile). All are out in the open. Allen wants people to touch the lunch boxes: to hear the hollow snap of the clasp, to feel the rattle of the plastic handle.
"When a lot of people come, they have in mind the box that they had in school," Allen said. "And they start looking for that box and, boy, when they see it, I see that smile on their face!"
Of course, some people may not want to remember that they went to school as fans of Teddy Ruxpin or Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Allen himself predates the demographic by a couple of hairs. And while the museum has more than enough boxes to dazzle its visitors, Allen keeps his best and most rare examples locked away at home. "Some of those early space or Superman lunch boxes can fetch over $10,000."
Allen's museum displays some of the original paintings created for reproduction on lunch boxes -- "Here's old David Hasselhoff on the Knight Rider lunch box, front and back" -- and metal "proof sheets" for lunch boxes, mounted in frames like Old Masters.
The Lunch Box Museum's current home, a sprawling former farmer's market, gives Allen room to showcase several of his collections: Southern stoneware, model airplanes, and classic cars that includes the hand-painted 1965 station wagon driven by Eddie Martin, creator of the mysterious Pasaquan. Allen even devotes a room to honky-tonk Phenix City, Alabama, the town across the river where everyone from Columbus went to raise hell.
But it's Allen's room of lunch boxes -- for all of its low tech and rusty edges -- that feeds our soul; a reminder of a soggy cheese sandwich, a Drakes Yodel, and a vanquished schoolyard bully.