CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — THINK hard. Where are the lunch boxes of your family's past? If you've happened to keep them stashed in the attic or buried in the basement, you owe Scott Bruce a big thank you. In the past three years Mr. Bruce has helped to turn these mundane items into one of the hottest, fastest-growing collectibles around. Lunch boxes from the 1950s and '60s, which were selling for no more than $10 to $15 three years ago, now fetch an average of $60 apiece.
Bruce, an eccentric, 33-year-old visual artist, says his interest in collectibles began in a roundabout way: He wanted to become a fiction writer, but thought that the transition from art to fiction would be too big a leap - so he decided to start with nonfiction. His subject: collectibles from the baby-boom generation.
Thus began his search for an obscure object to collect and turn into a commodity.
``I set up a checklist of five things I was looking for,'' says Bruce, ``and I started to go to antique fairs, collectibles shows, second-hand stores, and so forth, looking for something that was as yet undiscovered that I could capitalize on.''
The requirements: something mass-produced during the baby boom, popular in its day, still very cheap, still available, and reflective of the ``electronic landscape'' of the period.
Bruce found and discarded a number of other possibilities, but he found his answer in a Salvation Army Store in Cambridge, Mass., where he snatched up a pair of lunch boxes - ``The Jetsons'' and ``Looney Tunes'' - for about a dollar apiece.
``Eureka! It was electrifying,'' says Bruce. ``When I hit lunch boxes I knew I had something with considerable potential.''
At the time, about 40 others were actively collecting lunch boxes, he says. But Bruce stepped in and organized a network among the existing collectors.
``Scott saw a market and he conquered it,'' explains Gary Sohmer, owner of Wex Rex Records, a collectibles shop in Hudson, Mass.
Lunch boxes are far from rare. Between 1950 and 1970, 120 million were sold. It was big business. ``Lunch boxes made a few people very wealthy'' says Bruce, an unabashed capitalist. ``That's a tradition I want to perpetuate.
``I saw it, in a sense, as a means to an end. I could create this whole market and a lot of popular interest, supply that demand with commodities - the books, calendars, and the boxes themselves - and profit from them.''
He decided to find out everything he could about the folklore and history of lunch boxes. This meant contacting the leading manufacturers and asking for their cooperation. Initially, he was rebuffed; they assumed he must be an industrial spy. Who would be interested in lunch boxes? But Bruce persisted, and from this research came his first book, ``Lunch Box: The '50s and '60s,'' published by Chronicle Books in San Francisco.
Today, Bruce has earned the title ``King of Lunch Boxes.'' His ``Official Price Guide to Lunch Box Collectibles'' will be published in February. A year and a half ago he started a quarterly newsletter for collectors. He produces it himself on a home computer and calls it ``Hot Boxing.'' Its 300 subscribers include actor-director Rob Reiner and a squadron of Air Force F-16 pilots in Nevada, who take their boxes up with them on flights.
The popularity of lunch boxes draws on such well-established constituencies as Beatlemaniacs, Disneyana lovers, Elvis fans, and (Star) ``Trekkies.'' A vinyl Beatles lunch kit brought $700 at auction last year.
Value is determined by a combination of the popularity of the character and rarity of the item. ``Soupy Sales'' and ``Star Trek'' boxes bring as much as $250. According to Bruce, prices are rising $10 a month across the board. He expects this trend to continue for the next six to eight months, when prices will reach a plateau. Sometime in this year or next he expects a drop of 10 percent to 20 percent, followed by another plateau. But that plateau price is expected to be two to three times the current prices.
``This is American popular culture,'' Bruce says. ``To say that this has a limited appeal is to completely invalidate what America has been in the last 20 or 30 years.''
Just what kind of social statement do lunch boxes make? At first, Bruce dodges: ``I'm just not equipped, I mean, I'm a college dropout. It really doesn't interest me,'' he says. But when pressed, he provides insights on lunch boxes as social artifacts. ``You can tell a lot about the country in the last 30 years by the popularity of boxes; they do reflect changing attitudes,'' he says.
Bruce can take a visitor on a fascinating trip through recent American history as portrayed on the changing facades of lunch boxes. He points to ``Tom Corbett: Space Cadet,'' a popular television program that was boxed in the early '50s. ``The box portrays young Americans going into space as if it's an infinite backyard. They stand in space without helmets, impervious to the vacuum. It's a wonderful image - an archetype of our attitude at that time,'' says Bruce.
He takes us through the days of Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry, where the image is of a man and his horse. ``That began to change in the late '60s, with the Vietnam war,'' Bruce notes.
He reaches for a box bearing the words ``Cowboy in Africa.'' This begins a ``reflection of concerns outside the country. It's a realization on the part of TV producers that the old Western ideal is really bankrupt.''
With the changing mood about Vietnam, Bruce says as he pulls down another lunch box, came the Kung Fu box in 1974. ``There was a realization that we had lost the war, that Ho Chi Minh's tactics and morality were basically superior. TV producers put a Ho Chi Minh stand-in on the American frontier. Instead of a Hopalong Cassidy identification with a hero, this is an identification with our enemy, our victim. It shows a complete reversal of American consciousness in a span of 15 years.''
Bruce has contracted with a New York company to curate an exhibit of lunch boxes that he hopes will open in New York City next fall and then travel the country for three years. Much of the exhibit will be culled from the collection of 1,500 lunch boxes inhabiting his small apartment. Brightly colored boxes stacked in the narrow landing outside the door greet visitors and prepare them for the 110 boxes displayed on black lacquered shelves in the living room alongside stacks of plastic-wrapped lunch boxes of every imaginable color and character.
``My interest in lunch boxes has peaked,'' says Bruce.
``Now that I've established a formula, I'm repeating the success of my lunch box promotion with other collectibles. I've moved on to two other fields at this point.''
What will happen to those 1,500 lunch boxes? Bruce plans to hold a series of four mail-order auctions beginning in the spring. But the bulk of the collection will go into the exhibit.