07/12/2012 12:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Lunch Box: A Cultural Icon

By Amy Geduldig


The lunch box. In the 1980s it was a revered cultural icon that marked your status in the upper echelons of elementary school society. Square, tin replicas of Rainbow Brite or The Dukes of Hazzard decorated school cafeterias nationwide and were the envy of the bagged-lunch set. Sandwiched between the blazing hot popularity of those with remarkably awesome lunch boxes and the attempted indifference of brown paper baggers were the owners of the incredibly awkward, sadly golden Tupperware lunch container; to call it a lunch box would have been an insult to the very ideal we -- the owners of said container -- held most dear.

Occasionally, in a fit of pique or boredom, a student would be so inclined to trace the alphabet that graced the container's exterior; though such tracings could be considered juvenile, even for an eight year old. Attempts to "jazz" up the Tupperware lunch container also failed miserably, as one cycle in a dishwasher was all it took to remove any trace of creativity from the teflon-like plastic. My years spent in the Robbins Lane Elementary School cafeteria, therefore, were an interesting affair of attempting to hide the lunch container or ignoring it completely.

By the time I reached middle school, I had graduated to the brown paper bag, which featured my name in my mother's neat handwriting -- infinitely more acceptable in the cafeteria. But, it is unfair simply to vent my disdain of the Tupperware lunch container. Within its confines were the homemade lunches prepared lovingly by my mother: peanut butter and jelly, tuna fish, turkey, and perhaps most intriguing, cream cheese and jelly on white bread. Often these sandwiches -- soup was rarity, as the Tupperware lunch container did not have space for a thermos -- were accompanied by notes of support, encouragement and loving affection; wishing me well on a test or simply saying I love you.

I realize now that my lunch box was just as cool as the trendy tin it tried to emulate. Yes, the alphabet embossing was embarrassing. The bright, unmistakeable, golden color was hideous. But, looking at this vestige of my youth, all I feel is a loving sentimentality for the nourishment my lunch box provided both my body and my soul.

Thanks to The New York Public Library, everyone has the opportunity to relive such fond memories. Lunch Hour NYC, currently on display at the Gottesman Exhibition Hall at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, highlights the quintessential New York City meal. Included in the exhibition is an array of lunch time possibilities -- the Automat, the power lunch, the knish and its Indian cousin the Samosa, and of course the school lunch and its important accessory -- the lunch box.