No Lunch Breaks for This Collector
They durably protect the mid-day nourishment lovingly assembled by parents. They immortalize the pop icons of our nation. And, nearly 500 of them rest stacked floor to ceiling and wall to wall in the home of Joe Shuler, MBA76 (R), affectionately known to friends and admirers as Mr. Lunch Box.
In one corner smiles Barbie, in another Vinnie Barbarino, and there, between the Peanuts and the Flintstones, the ladies from Charlies Angels tantalize, while on the opposite end of the room, the Beatles appear to be belting out I Want to Hold Your Hand.
For Shuler, this collection of lunch boxes is more than a casual hobby. They reflect a certain era through movies, comic characters and television shows. Some are recognizable icons such as the Partridge family, Lassie and the Waltons. Others depict short-lived and long-forgotten television shows or movies like Street Hawk and Dynomuts.
But Shulers collection wasnt started because of pop icons; his reasons were more personal. My brother was a soldier and had written me about Vietnam. I saw a lunch box with GI Joe in a Vietnam scene, so I picked it up. And so it began.
Every August, I would go out and buy one of each lunch box in the stores, he says. Most Ive gotten for three or four dollars, and theyre in mint condition never used. Some even have the original tissue paper protecting the drink containers. Shuler estimates that most of his lunch boxes are worth about $100 a piece, but some boxes, he says, are valued up to $300.
From a graphics standpoint, I like the idea of printing on metal. A prime specimen of Shulers collection is his Crackerjacks lunch box, printed in four colors on metal embossed to resemble popcorn. To me, he says, it brings back memories, plus I consider it beautiful. You expect to open this and find Crackerjacks inside.
Shulers hobby is tied closely to his vocation. He is the owner of Alert Graphics, in Bogota, N.J., a distributor of printing and specialty advertising, which is approaching its 20th year of business. Having studied printing at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University and then acquiring an MBA for managers from FDU, Shuler has been able to weather the storms of entrepreneurship to build a successful business. My MBA gave me an overall view of business, he says. It taught me to look for the solutions, rather than to keep on defining the problems.
This philosophy helped Shuler to overcome the decline in demand for printed forms (the main focus of his early business) that came about with the computer revolution. Not wanting his business to go the way of the old-time metal lunch box, which in 1985 saw its demise due to pressure from parents arguing that metal lunch boxes were being used by children as weapons, Shuler made changes. Business forms were being computerized, so I decided to devote my attention to custom labels. From there I added specialty advertising keychains, badges, anything you can put your name and logo on. These items are reminiscent of the U.S. Post Office lunch box in Shulers collection, which was used to promote the use of zip codes in the mid-1960s
Although it would be a shame if a rare lunch box from the 1970s like the Jetsons lunch box manufactured by King Seely, valued on the collectors market at $1,000 was thrown in the recycling bin by an owner unaware of its value, Shuler is a strong proponent for recycling. Alert Graphics distributes educational material, such as coloring books, litter bags and stickers promoting recycling, and Shuler is a member of the Association of New Jersey Recyclers, a statewide organization.
Even so, it is doubtful his wife, Mazie, would recycle her collection of Depression glass. In fact, collecting is a family affair. The Shulers oldest son is interested in Lionel trains and military artifacts, their second son collects beer memorabilia and the youngest is into Star Wars collectibles. Even Shulers four grandchildren appreciate his collection in their own way. They know there is always candy in one of my lunch boxes.
Shuler has some advice for aspiring collectors. First, dating is the hallmark of a collectable. Does the item have a date on it or is it easily tied to a certain period? Second, Condition is everything!
Networking with other collectors can also be a boon. Shuler has exhibited his lunch boxes at Johnson Pubic Library in Hackensack, N.J., three times, and his collection has been the focus of newspaper features. As a result, he says, People call me wanting to sell me lunch boxes. Some even offer to buy them.
Shuler will not, however, be ready to sell his lunch boxes any time soon. This collection is a special part of his life, and he takes pride in being known as Mr. Lunch Box.