HACKENSACK, N.J. — Joe Shuler of Bogota loves sharing his lunchbox collection.
A hundred of them, all in mint condition, are on display through Saturday at the Johnson Public Library in Hackensack.
The exhibit includes the first one Shuler bought: GI Joe. It reminded him of his brother, who was fighting in the Vietnam War at the time.
The boxes, all made of metal, point to some American cultural phenomenon during their heyday: 1958 to 1985.
“The boxes show the movies, TV shows, comedians, and fads,” explained Shuler, the 83-year-old owner of Alert Graphics.
The display collection includes “The Hulk,” “Mork and Mindy,” “Frankenstein,” “Star Trek,” “The Bionic Woman,” “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams,” and much more.
Shuler’s penchant for lunchboxes started in 1969, shortly after he moved to Bogota with his wife and three children. In those days, he worked for Bowater Inc. selling newsprint to publishers.
“I was on the road a lot,” he said.
During August and September, he took notice of lunchboxes wherever he went.
Everything about a lunchbox appeals to Shuler.
For starters, they’re made of metal, which is durable. For a guy from Pittsburgh, that’s not small.
“I worked in a steel mill in Pittsburgh when I was a student so I love steel,” he said. “Also, graphically, lunchboxes are very beautiful and multi-colored.”
The boxes also have all the hallmarks of a good collectible, he said, including the fact each is marked with the day it was produced.
The metal lunchbox era ended in the mid-’80s when a group of PTA women complained because their children were being injured by lunchboxes.
“Kids were smacking each other, cracking ribs, breaking jaws,” Shuler said. “The ladies petitioned their state to stop selling metal lunchboxes.”
That’s why the last lunchbox in Shuler’s collection is “Rambo” from 1985. It’s the last metal lunchbox ever made, he said.
“Well, they make them now in China but with cheaper steel,” Shuler said. “Mine are all made in America with American metal. That’s what I like about them. They’re true America.”
There's another thing to like: Shuler paid $4 to $5 per lunchbox. Today their value is $300 apiece.
The hobby has just one downside: storage.
“They require space and protection,” Shuler said, “and they can’t be exposed to light.”
If they are, they’ll fade, and that, he said, would be a shame after all these years.
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