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Beatlemania! When The Fab Four Rocked The Lunchroom

The Beatles are not only considered the top of the heap when it comes to musical acts of the 20th century, they're also apparently the kings of the lunchbox.

After John, Paul, George and Ringo shook their little mop tops on The Ed Sullivan Show, 50 years ago this Sunday, American lunchbox manufacturers figured out, hey, the kids dig 'em. Let's put these boys on lunchboxes. And so in 1965, The Beatles became the first pop music group ever to grace a metal lunchbox, according to a Smithsonian exhibit from several years ago. Pictured above, the light-blue metal box is widely considered "one of the Holy Grails" of the lunchbox-collecting world, says Barbara Crews, the collectibles expert for About.com.

It came with a thermos and some serious street cred, says Beatles historian Bruce Spizer. Last year, a mint condition version of that lunchbox sold for $1,625. Yeah, you read that right.

"Anyone who is despondent they didn't keep theirs" from childhood, says Spizer, "they need to remember how cool it was to go to school carrying that lunchbox and be the envy of their friends."

Not just a nostalgia item, that box represents the intersection of two American pop cultural forces of the era: The Beatles themselves, of course, and the rise of the lunchbox as an expression of self-identity for kids (and a way to market to them).

"A lunch box was not merely a lunch box, but a statement of who we were," as the Smithsonian's exhibit, Taking America to Lunch, put it.

These days, even a beat-up version of that 1965 Beatles lunchbox can sell for $200 or $300, Crews says.

A second Beatles lunchbox was released in 1968 to mark the release of Yellow Submarine, that trippy cartoon phenomenon based on the band's music. Those babies will fetch $400 or more these days, says Crews.

And it wasn't just lunchboxes. Apparently, food manufacturers would use the Fab Four's image to sell just about anything – ice cream bars, Nestle Quick (this vintage tin of the chocolate drink mix went up for auction starting at $1,200!), even bubble gum. (Although whoever thought it wise to make Ringo Starr the heartthrob focus of this gum wrapper, while leaving Paul McCartney off completely, had some serious judgment issues.)

More recently, cookbooks have offered up recipes — like "Strawberry Pie Forever" and "Can't Buy Me Fudge" — inspired by the lyrics of Beatles songs.

"It's amazing how they managed to infiltrate every part of pop culture," says Spizer.

For those of us who want to rock a retro Beatles lunchbox without selling an organ to pay for it, there are always the reproductions and new versions that hit the market starting in the the 1990s. You can pick one of these up in the $10 to $25 range.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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