“The Church Box Supper Social has a unique history in American folklore, and has been written about in many a novel and book of the American scene,” explained a Los Angeles newspaper story in 1953.
“It dates even further back than the ‘gay nineties,’ and is a form of happy entertainment worth far more than the mere price paid for the ‘pretty box of food.'”
Just 20 years later, people were again looking back at the concept with nostalgia.
An article from Colorado’s Greely Daily Tribune published in March 1976 described an upcoming box supper social in the nearby town of Ault, saying, “a bit of old-fashioned rural Americana” would be revived to raise money for a community project.
And there was going to be old-fashioned entertainment! As the Colorado newspaper announcement concluded, “The Feedlot Four Barbershop Quartet will be on hand to entertain the revelers… Everyone in the county has been invited to take part.”
We found more than a dozen photos of the box social revelry in decades past, and colorized some of them, too.
A Michigan Box Social in 1940
Life goes to a Box Social in Hudson, Mich. to raise funds for the town band
Life Magazine – May 6, 1940
Three decades ago, a box social was the most stirring festal and gastronomic event of any U. S. countryside.
Though roads, automobiles and motion pictures have reduced their incidence today, box socials are still held occasionally in communities where sandwich-making survives as an art, and romance grows humbly amid wax paper in a cardboard box.
This week, LIFE goes to a box social in Hudson, Mich., a community of 2.600 people, situated in rolling farm country on Bean Creek, ten miles from the Ohio border.
A box social is more than a picnic indoors. Besides the always-dependable pleasures of the stomach, a box social offers elements of competition, chance and emotional adventure.
Competition springs from the hours of kitchen craftsmanship put in by each girl or woman who enters a box in the auction. Chance figures in the bidding of each boy or man who (theoretically) is unaware of a desired box’s authorship.
Emotional adventure comes with the acquisition of a box, for according to ancient custom, each successful bidder must share his box with its creator. Hudson’s box social — given by the Mothers’ Club for the benefit of the town band — was big, elaborate, successful.
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Eight hundred Hudsonians gathered in the school gymnasium, and after a musical program staged by the children, settled down to the serious business of bidding.
It developed that a good many young men had been tipped off about ribbons and wrappings, for miraculously they got the boxes that went with the right girls.
When it was all over, virtually everybody was full of olives, radishes, bananas and candies, and the school band had acquired $105 toward new uniforms.
A box supper social, 1950s-style
The Montgomery Advertiser (Alabama) August 26, 1955
A bit of old-fashioned charm in modern dress sets the theme for a teenage party idea — a Box Supper Social, 1955 Style.
Ask each girl coming to the party to bring a tasty “sandwich and…” supper for two. Tell her to wrap her box as “fetchingly” as she knows how.
At the party, have the fellows bid against each other for each box — and the privilege of sharing its contents with the owner.
You can suggest this party idea as a way for teens to raise small funds for youth center activities, or for the youth group in their church.
Keep it very simple, or make the occasion a bit more festive with colorful Japanese lantern decorations in the backyard.
The teenagers might even think it fun to come in costume. Boys can wear derby hats and bright plaid vests. The girls will find it easy to create “gay-nineties” outfits from their own wardrobes.
As the hostess, you can provide lemonade to drink and ice cream for dessert. After supper, put on phonograph records and let the young people dance. Or, plan games in which all can participate.
A 1955 version of the old-time Box Supper Social will appeal to the college set, too. It’s a fun way to meet with hometown chums during summer vacations from school.
How to give a box social (1955)
by Epsie Kinard in Woman’s Day (July 1955)
Proof that one can be given for profit and pleasure is this lively example in Dryden, New York.
Here, the Home Bureau’s 30 members, ages from 20-40, pull in husbands and other men guests, take over the upper floor of the firehouse, and raise $75 from a box supper social.
“Going, going, awful cheap! Now, who will make it $5?” cajoles this glib-tongued auctioneer. There are three spellbinders, one just after the other.
To make bidding for a lady’s box more fun — in it is supper for two, for her and the lucky man winning her good food — the bids begin at $1.
One box brings $38.50. But only 10% of each bid is actually paid. To sharpen bidding, some have surprises tucked in with the food — gimmicks the auctioneers tout as though the box has the Koh-i-noor diamond hidden inside.
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The women are very clever at decorating boxes, and every box masquerades as something to draw “ah’s” from admirers: a gumdrop cottage, a circus chariot, a “California-or-Bust” covered wagon.
No shape or size stumps inventiveness, and wit wins its own reward on the auction block. Loved for its sly fun is the box carrying a backyard with a picket fence on its lid. Across it is a washline strung with some absurdly small unmentionables.
Before boxes are opened, however, (at midnight), the hoedown and other folk dances shake the rafters. For the music, there are a stack of square-dance and folk-dance records and some fancy “calling” over a mike by an administrative officer of a nuclear research lab, who makes this his hobby.
“Swing your partner” shares honors with calls to join hands for Hungarian dances, for free-style polkas. With the glee of kids, these grownups play Musical Box.
For this game, a box goes the rounds of a circle, and the person holding it when the music stops has to drop out. The winner is the last one on the floor. His prize? It’s inside the box he’s holding, of course.
The menu: Three sandwiches, tuna or chicken salad, deviled eggs, stuffed celery, relishes, cupcakes, fruit, coffee brewed on the spot.
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Teenagers will enjoy decorating boxes for a fancy outdoor get-together
From Ebony magazine – July 1960
With the enthusiasm of youth, an ordinary picnic can take on the aspects of a “swinging hoedown,” a “way-out shindig” or a modern box social with a cha-cha beat!
Music and food, two very important elements in a teenager’s life, complement each other when the setting takes place out-of-doors.
With the prospect of good food on hand, and plenty of it, invitations for picnics are hastily accepted. Impromptu outings are also lots of fun, and most of the “goodies” can come out of mom’s refrigerator.
For a fancy turn of events, a picnic lunch becomes a glamorized version of grandma’s old-fashioned box suppers where the highest bidder, depending on his luck, charm and finances, walked away with the prettiest girl and the fanciest lunch box.
The modern adaptation of the box social eliminates the guesswork, and. more often than not, the girl knows beforehand her date’s food favorites and is sure to include them.
Gathered at backyard picnic, teenage girls show off picnic boxes they decorated for friends. Ice-cold Coke, Pepsi or other soft drink can be served with a fancy box lunch.
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Baseball-themed lunch box
It’s fun to spend an afternoon in the backyard listening to the ball game with your friends. In the excitement of home runs and stolen bases, you’ll work up an appetite so serve your guests hot dogs and baked beans with all the trimmings.
A picnic party box
How about calling the gang together for an impromptu picnic party. Bring out the record player and pack lots of good food in individual lunch boxes.
Make up corned beef sandwiches on rye bread with pickles, lettuce and tomatoes. Accompany with crisp cole slaw and assorted cold drinks.
A 60s lunch box for a hot day
On a hot day when tempers flare and appetites are unappeased with ordinary food fare, pack a picnic basket and head for the wide open spaces.
Country fried chicken served cold, flavory potato salad and chocolate cake will make you forget the heat.
A lunch box decorated with playing cards
Another clever idea designed to attract the male eye is a lunch box decorated with playing cards. The contents are of primary importance, including fresh sliced cucumbers, fried chicken, celery sticks and meaty, man-sized sandwiches.
A nautical lunch box with little American flags
For a nautical lunch box, decorate a fancy shoe box with tiny flags and fill to the top with plenty of “seaworthy” food. To preserve the freshness of foods, individually wrap brownies, tomatoes, eggs and sandwiches in Saran Wrap.
A hat box to hold a lunch
The feminine approach to the lunch box container is a gaily decorated hat box. Packed with all the goodies that make picnics memorable, this box lunch includes double-filled sandwiches, individual salads in paper cups, raisin cupcakes, fresh apples.
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Fun at a California box social in 1960
Box supper social: Reviving a bit of Americana (1976)
Greeley Daily Tribune (Greeley, Colorado), March 18, 1976
For those born less than 100 years ago, a box social was a source of entertainment in the good old days. A woman prepared a scrumptious lunch, placed it in s shoe box or simiiar container, wrapped it in pretty paper and decorated it.
A woman usually tipped off her favorite man, hoping he would bid the most for the supper. Or often, she disguised her work of art to make it difficult for her man to choose the right one to bid on. Object of the whole thing is for the man to buy a box supper to be shared with the one who prepared it.
Often the supper prepared by the moat popular girl would create lively bidding by would-be suitors. Many times the best-decorated package would sell for more than the beau of the preparer could afford, and his girl would eat with his rival.
Ault’s social will be conducted in three divisions: married, single and double. Prizes will be awarded for the best decorated in each division.
The single division is designed for single girls to match wits with their men, or simply attract the pick of the field. In the doubles division, two girls may go together to prepare supper, and two men may pool their resources to their resources to purchase the privilege of eating supper with the two girls — sort of a blind date roulette.
The married division can be simpler, or more complicated, depending on the wife’s whim. If she’s mad at him he might have to buy two or three suppers just to get the right one.
If, on the other hand, he can read her mind, he might be able to get even with her by bidding on another’s supper and have his friend buy the one prepared by his wife. They then simply trade to keep peace in two families.