Out to Lunch, Into History: Mark Kelehan’s Collecting PassionMay 23, 2023 02:56PM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
When Mark Kelehan was an undergraduate student at Creighton University during the early 1990s, he went to a flea market on a whim. There, he purchased a lunchbox, a vibrantly colored vintage one featuring Pac-Man. “It was not in the greatest shape or rare, but it was super cool,” he recalled. “It reminded me of childhood.”
That last part, the nostalgic reminder of simpler times, proved irresistible. Kelehan, now 48, a husband and father of four and general director in Union Pacific Railroad’s marketing and sales department for Mexico, had found his passion. Some 30 years later, he’s amassed at least 800 lunchboxes, alongside original concept art, production plates, and marketing materials. Taken together, Kelehan is confident it’s the largest, most comprehensive lunchbox collection in the world.
Ironically, the collector said he brownbagged his school lunch as a kid. He grew up on a military base near Munich, Germany, and was intrigued by American culture. “Clothing, electronics, toys—I was fascinated with anything American, especially if it was commercialized,” he recalled.
Even as a child, Kelehan loved collecting. He avidly sought football cards and loved the act of organizing his purchases. That impulse to amass items around a specific interest carried over into adulthood. After finding the vintage Pac-Man box, Kelehan became intrigued with what else he might find. He began perusing price guides that detailed lunchboxes, stopping at flea markets and garage sales, and following listings on eBay.
He said several factors go into deciding whether to add a lunchbox to his inventory: condition, artistic content, and rarity. “Most lunchboxes were produced between 1950 and 1986,” he said. “That was the ‘Golden Age’ of lunchboxes. Some made it into mass production; others were only prototypes. I love the research aspect and establishing new facts.”
Kelehan’s collection is like a historical survey of American childhood and pop culture since the 1950s. From Strawberry Shortcake to Care Bears, KISS to Knight Rider, Superman to Star Wars, each lunchbox provides insights into American cultural values, industry, and consumerism.
Children might have started carrying lunch pails during the 1880s to emulate their fathers headed to work, but commercialization didn’t occur until the Aladdin food and beverage container company produced a Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox in 1950. It picked up on the childhood Zeitgeist of the era, and in so doing, monetized the popularity of television Westerns. Within one year, lunchbox sales went from 50,000 annually to 600,000. Unsurprisingly, Thermos came out with their own lunchbox featuring Roy Rogers and Dale Evans soon after, and an industry, complete with competitive licensing deals, was born.
Seeing how lunchboxes changed over the ensuing decades has been fascinating 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.”
Part of that story involves understanding the business aspect to the lunchbox industry. While in New York in 2009, Kelehan met a man who was selling several Sesame Street production sheets. This discovery made Kelehan curious about the people behind designing, constructing, and selling lunchbox designs. In addition to production plates, he began amassing concept art, illustrations, proofs, prototypes, original photos, marketing materials, and advertisements; items that, taken together, provide a cohesive history of an industry.
That transition proved irresistible for the Durham Museum, which is showcasing Kelehan’s collection through early September with the exhibition The Lunchbox: Packed with Pop Culture, which features around 500 lunchboxes and includes categories such as Westerns, Disney, action, and sports.
“We first heard about this collection several years ago,” said Jessica Brummer, Durham’s director of communications. “This is a good example of how a collection comes to life and grows into an exhibition. It also tells the story of a collector and how he has developed his expertise. We wanted to bring that to life.”
As a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, it was also key to Durham that Kelehan’s collection had something educational to say. “Lunchboxes tell the story of American industry,” Brummer explained. “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.”
Kelehan couldn’t be more pleased with the exhibition, and he hopes it’s the first of many. “There’s a story here, and it’s one that’s told over time. There’s so much more to it.”
The Lunchbox: Packed with Pop Culture runs through September 3, 2023.
For more information, visit durhammuseum.org.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.