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Omaha Magazine

Packed With History

Feb 24, 2023 10:12AM ● By Kim Carpenter
The Lunchbox: Packed with Pop Culture runs from March 4—September 3, 2023.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

One of the most exciting aspects of preparing to go back to school after summer break remains constant: choosing a lunchbox. 

Not just any lunchbox, but the perfect lunchbox.

In addition to transporting a sandwich, chips, and other assorted goodies, the lunchbox is one of the most important schools items for children to demonstrate what they love and who they are. Sitting around the school lunch table, what kids bring their food in shows off their unique tastes and style while broadcasting likeminded passions.

Starting in March, the Durham Museum is showcasing what lunchboxes reveals about cafeteria crazes and American history with The Lunchbox: Packed with Pop Culture, which features around 500 lunchboxes amassed by local collector Mark Kelehan. It is the first exhibition of its kind and exclusive to the Durham. Groupings include categories like Westerns, Disney, Action, and Sports, among others.

“They all tell stories,” Kelehan said, a general director in Union Pacific’s marketing and sales department. He purchased his first vintage lunchbox, a brightly colored Pac-Man one, during the mid 1990s and was immediately hooked. 

“It was not in the greatest shape or rare, but it was super cool,” he recalled. “It reminded me of childhood.”

That connection prompted Kelehan “to see what else was out there.” Almost 30 years later, he’s accrued one of the largest collections of lunchbox items in the world, which includes at least 800 lunchboxes, original pieces of concept art, production plates, and related marketing materials. 

“The more we learned about Mark's collection, the more we realized there really was a story behind this topic,” noted Durham’s director of communications, Jessica Brummer. “We created this show from scratch. This is a good example of how a collection comes to life and grows into an exhibition.”

At the heart of that exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into the pop culture that has permeated American daily life since the 1950s. 

“It’s such a reflection of that,” Brummer observed. “You look at a lunchbox and get a snapshot of what was popular in America. Anything that was a big deal on television or in the movies was reflected on a lunchbox.”

Whether Big Bird or the Beatles, Snow White or Superman, visitors to the Durham can see what excited and mattered to children, and perhaps more profoundly, how consumerism shaped American culture at any given point. 

Brummer shared that discussions at the Durham revealed just how deeply the objects resonated with staff, with everyone remembering what they carried as school children.

“We all went went right back into the nostalgia of the lunchroom,” she revealed. “That’s when you know that you have an exhibition that will strike a chord. People will say, ‘Oh, I remember that!’ or ‘I had that one!’ Everyone will relate to it in some way, and that is really exciting for us. There’s a certain nostalgia that helps people dive into this show.”

Those kinds of reactions are at the crux of what makes viewing Kelehan’s collection so compelling. Children will delight in familiar characters, from Disney princesses to beloved superheroes. But adults will dissolve into reveries of nostalgia when they see lunchboxes emblazoned with the Six Million Dollar Man, the Partridge Family, Yogi Bear, or the Flintstones. No matter the interest, there is a lunchbox that immediately transports viewers back to elementary school—and for many, a simpler, safer, and easier time.

The lunchbox has a utilitarian history: children first started carrying them in the 1880s to imitate the lunch pales their fathers carried to work. The first cartoon character to grace a lunchbox was Mickey Mouse in the mid 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that carriers emerged as personal statement and status items. That’s when the Aladdin food and beverage container company cashed in on the popularity of television westerns in 1950 and produced a Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox. Sales went from 50,000 units per year to 600,000. A few years later, Thermos followed suit with a Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunchbox of their own. 

A competitive industry was born with the two companies duking it out to license the hottest shows, movies, characters, and even music acts. Aladdin, for example, represented Disney and Star Wars, whereas Marvel appeared on Thermos lunchboxes. Between 1950 and 1970, around 120 million lunchboxes, made of metal and paired with their own insulated drink container, were sold. After 1970, the companies phased out metal in favor of cheaper plastic.

Brummer finds this material aspect important in and of itself: “Lunchboxes tell the story of American industry. You have a product that went from something practical for American workers to something that was monetized. The concept art really shows this process from beginning to end and tells us about an unknown part of history. It’s such a learning experience.”

That educational component is gratifying for Kelehan. 

“You can see American history and our fascination with pop culture through the history of lunchboxes. They are time capsules,” he said. “There is a story here, and it takes adults back, and in that process, they learn.” 

The Lunchbox: Packed with Pop Culture runs from March 4—September 3, 2023. 

Visit for more information.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, 
click here. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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