A ‘Quirky’ Trip Down Memory Lane

Angie Johnson turned her childhood passion for metal lunchboxes into a museum-worthy collection that now features more than 200 items.

by Patty Rasmussen

A line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet reads, “To thine own self be true,” or, in other words, be authentic. Standing in the middle of her Lunchbox and More Mini Museum—tagline “Getting Your Vintage On”—conveniently located in her garage, Covington resident Angie Johnson puts it another way: “When you have something like this [collection], your choice is to do something quirky like build a museum or sell everything on eBay, but I’m OK. I own my quirkiness. I don’t want to sell everything. I like it. It makes me happy. I want people to enjoy it instead of having it packed in the attic.”

From the time she was a little girl growing up in the 1970s, Johnson enjoyed browsing antique stores, tagging along with her mom on Saturdays. “I was in elementary school, probably first or second grade, and I would go with her,” she said. “I had my own little pocket money.” While her mom browsed the furniture section, Johnson looked through the toys and books and began buying items that interested her. When she was 11 years old, she saw her first metal lunchbox in an antique store. It depicted Goofy, the Walt Disney character.

“I remember thinking that was weird,” Johnson said. “Who would want a metal lunchbox? So, I passed it up.” However, it was not many months later that she began seeing more and more metal lunchboxes on antiquing ventures with her mom. “By then, I decided I liked them because I loved watching TV and all the lunchboxes had characters from TV, movies or cartoons,” Johnson said. “I think that’s why I was drawn to them.”

Metal lunchboxes at that time cost about $7, and she bought one. She can be forgiven for not remembering what was depicted on it, because now her collection contains more than 200 metal lunchboxes. 

“I decided I liked them because I loved watching TV and all the lunchboxes had characters from TV, movies or cartoons. I think that’s why I was drawn to them.”

Angie Johnson

“I try to limit myself to [the years] 1950 through 1985 because that’s when they had the steel metal lunchboxes, and I wanted to contain it a little,” Johnson said. She collected all through school—even through high school when it would not have been considered “cool”—but slowed down in college when life became too busy. When she met her husband, Jeff, she figured it would be time to “grow up” and get rid of the collection of toys and lunchboxes. His response surprised her. 

“He said he thought they were kind of cool,” she said. “That was all he had to say. I kept collecting and wonder if he would regret saying that now.”

The couple had the idea to turn her collection into a storefront museum in Porterdale around 2008, though it proved to be unfortunate timing with the start of the Great Recession. The Johnsons hung in for as long as they could before closing and bringing everything back home. 

By this time, the collection had grown to the point that Jeff said it was too much for their house. She asked if he would build a mini-museum in the garage where she could house the collection. “I tried to figure out how many displays I wanted and thought seven was the number the Lord likes in the Bible, the number of completeness,” Johnson said. She sorted the displays by decade of history; the other three are random vintage, school-themed and Christmas- and Easter-themed. 

The first case holds items from 1950s and earlier, including her Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox—the first steel metal lunchbox created for children based on a television show. In addition to being a unique vintage display, the second, third and fourth cases trace the cultural history of the United States through children’s toys and games from the 1960s to the 1980s. 

“I just thought it would be interesting to see how [culture] had changed because in the 40s and 50s, boys were boys and girls were girls,” she said. “Girls played with dolls and ironing boards and teacups, copying mom. The boys were into cowboys and Indians because that was what was on TV.” 

Johnson noted a significant turning point that happened in the mid-1950s.

“There were already space toys and space lunchboxes, but when Sputnik went up in 1957, it really transformed the market,” she said. “Lunchboxes and toys reflected that.” 

Eventually, even the music (disco) and fashion (bellbottoms) of the 1960s and 1970s made it onto lunchboxes. By then, many lunchboxes were made of vinyl. The last of the metal lunchboxes rolled off the line in the mid-1980s due to low sales and a group of vocal Florida moms who managed to get them banned. 

“They were concerned because when kids got in fights at school, a metal lunchbox was often used to hit their opponent,” Johnson said, “so these moms tried to ban steel metal lunchboxes. They started [their campaign] in the early 70s, and by 1985, they were successful.” 

Though Johnson does not have a favorite lunchbox in her collection, she remains partial to the western and space genres. “The space themes are very hard to find,” she said. “I’m looking for one now and can’t find it.” Johnson eschews searching on eBay or other Internet sites—she prefers the thrill of the antique store hunt—and while some collectors pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for lunchboxes, she does not play in those realms. 

“When I first started collecting, you could get a lunchbox for $7,” she said. “I fussed when they went up to $15, but today, $25 is the going rate for a common metal lunchbox.” 

For now, she just wants to encourage people to enjoy what she has collected. 

“If I ever won the lottery, I would love to have a lunchbox museum on The Square,” Johnson said, “but since I only buy a dollar ticket about once every two years, that’s probably out. I basically decided that it’s kind of like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ She said that the next time she wants adventure that she won’t look further than her own backyard, and I won’t look further than my own garage. But it’s OK. I’m happy there.” 

Those who wish to talk about vintage toys and lunchboxes or arrange a visit to the museum can email Angie Johnson at bbfuzz2@gmail.com.

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