Before I tell you who was the first licensed character to appear on a lunch box marketed to children, for school lunches, it’s important to realize that lunchboxes had already been around in various forms for a long time. Workers used to reuse cigar, tobacco, or cookie containers, which were often metal pails with lids, to carry their work lunches.
And, the familiar “domed shape” worker’s lunchbox came about in the 1920’s, along with the “thermos” or vacuum bottles for keeping things hot or cold. And, of course, various other types of lunchboxes were used throughout history, including picnic basket like boxes. Beyond that, it is important to note that the first manufactured kid’s school lunch box that featured a popular and well-known character was NOT the first decorated kid’s school lunch boxes. Before this, as early as the 1920’s, kid’s school lunch boxes were sold that were shaped like picnic baskets and featured lithographed scenes or other decorations.
So, the first popular character licensed to appear on a school kid’s lunchbox was Mickey Mouse. In 1935, Wisconsin company called Geuder, Paeschke, and Frey placed Mickey Mouse and other Mickey Mouse characters on it’s metal lunch box they called a “lunch kit.”
This lunch kit looked nothing like the school lunch boxes we are all familiar with. It was oval shaped and was sealed with a loop of wire that clamped on the side, also forming the handle. This type of lunch box is here and here. At this time, Mickey Mouse was still a fairly new character. He had been created in 1928 by Walt Disney. He had starred in the film Steamboat Willy, in 1928, and had been featured in Comic Strips since 1930. The character would evolve a lot after this.
The first character lunch box like the square ones we all know didn’t come until 1950. It was made by the company Aladdin, and featured Hopalong Cassidy, a popular television cowboy character who was created in 1904 by Clarence E. Muford in books and short stories, and, beginning in 1935, appeared in many popular films, in a much modified screen friendly guise. Aladdin, with its Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox, really helped get the ball rolling for what became an absolute craze for many years. They managed to sell 600,000 units in the first year, at, reportedly, $2.39, which was a pretty big bill for a lunch box in those days, roughly equivalent to 20 dollars.