The school lunch box has long been an item of interest in post-war America, just as school lunch itself is of recent interest in discussions of American food policy and nutrition. The National Museum of American History has a rather large collection of school lunch boxes, and there are many private collectors of such boxes. The museum has even had a small exhibition of some of these iconic boxes (see http://americanhistory.si.edu/lunchboxes) from the earliest, which featured working man’s lunch boxes and dinner pails (often made from repurposed food tins) to the inauguration of school lunch boxes specifically manufactured for children’s lunches from the 1940’s on to the 1970’s.

Updating the older collections of lunch boxes inevitably had to involve taking substantial changes in what and how we eat. Two factors that made Americans change what and how they eat, from 1950 to the present (in 2013) concern the increased travel abroad by Americans since the post-World War II period and, conversely, new resettlements of millions of people from the global world to America. These resettlements caused millions of Americans to be exposed to new foods and once-exotic cuisines, even to new containers for meals taken to school and work. So, Japanese bento boxes and Indian tiffin-boxes (or simply, tiffins) are seen on lunch tables everywhere.

In India, the Anglo-Indian word “tiffin” is used to refer to a light lunch, a between-meal snack, tea/tea time, and in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), to a packed lunch, the container that lunch is packed in (tiffin-box or tiffin-carrier), and the man who delivers a packed lunch to someone (tiffin-wallah or dabawallah).

The standard two or three tier box common to Indian lunch service (carried or delivered) has now shown up in America, along with the Japanese bento box, as a handy way of transporting a lunch of several items. Very much like the working man’s or “miner’s” lunchbox of the late 19th century, the box is often made of metal, for durability. Each tier serves as a container for a different foodstuff and can be eaten from directly. This tiffin, acquired for an exhibition on changing foodways, is a three tier box with the legend “Eat Drink Live,” one word on each tier. And, given America’s radically changing population all across the country, the tiffin may carry its place of origin’s rice, curry, mango pickle, and lentil stew, a very American lunchmeat sandwich, piece of fruit, carrot sticks, and a dessert, or tortillas, rice, beans, and a mango.

Location: Currently not on view

Subject: Food Culture


See more items in: Home and Community Life: Domestic Life, Food, FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000


Exhibition Location:

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: 2012.3103.01Nonaccession Number: 2012.3103Catalog Number: 2012.3103.01

Object Name: tiffinpail, dinner

Physical Description: metal (overall material)Measurements: overall: 6 1/4 in x 4 1/4 in; 15.875 cm x 10.795 cm

Guid: http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/ng49ca746ad-a42d-704b-e053-15f76fa0b4fa

Record Id: nmah_1427227

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