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One Man’s Lunchbox

August 18, 2011

What could you tell about a man if you just had his empty lunch box?  Not much, probably.  The size of the lunch box might tell you a little about his appetite.  The elaborateness of the box might tell you a little about his wealth.  For working adults in the late 19th and early 20th century, lunchboxes were an earmark of social standing—if you were caught toting one, it indicated that you didn’t have the time or money to go home or out to an eatery for your midday meal.  As you can see from the photograph, this lunch box is quite small, only about 8 inches long, 5 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall.  It is barely large enough to put a sandwich in it, barely big enough for a full piece of fruit, maybe some dates or apple slices.  The box itself is very plain – no pictures of Davy Crockett or President Cleveland or advertisements of any kind.  It is obviously old, well-used, made of tin with a front key latch.  It is in the collection of the Birmingham History Center – item number 671.26, donated by the Oak Hill Memorial Association.

Captain William C. Ward’s Lunchbox

Luckily, the box came with an old envelope inside.  There was nothing in the envelope but on the front cover someone had written in pencil “Gentleman’s Lunchbox of Captain William C. Ward, C.S.A., who moved in 1885 from Selma to Birmingham where he practiced [law] until his death.  In those days professional and business men customarily either returned home for the midday meal or carried lunchboxes.  Captain Ward rode the street car each day to and from 12 Avenue South and First Avenue North.  His residence was at 1717 12th Avenue South. His office was in the Steiner Bank Building on First Avenue North at 21st Street. Captain Ward wore a gentleman’s cape in inclement weather and carried his lunchbox daily.”

Now we have something to go on.  A little digging comes up with a remarkable story of an interesting man.  Born in Bibb County, Alabama the same year as Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie (and my great-great grandfather Cornelius Desmond) in 1835 (the year that Haley’s Comet appeared in the 19th century), William Columbus Ward lived on a farm with his parents, David and Elizabeth Ward, near Six Mile.  As a young man, he graduated from the University of Alabama in 1858 and became a math teacher at Howard College in Marion until the Civil War started.

He served in the Confederate Army as a Corporal in Company G of the famous 4th Alabama Regiment, fighting in most of the early battles in Virginia.  On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, he was severely wounded while attacking the right flank of the 20th Maine Regiment on Little Round Top.  He spent 35 days in a field hospital on the battleground, eventually recovering from his wound.  He was exchanged and returned to Alabama.  In 1865, he served as Captain of Company A of the 62nd Alabama Regiment in defense of the State.  He was again wounded, this time at Spanish Fort, and was captured on April 9, 1865.  He was a prisoner at Ship Island until paroled on May 1, 1865.

The Steiner Bank Building on First Avenue

Returning home, he prepared himself for the bar by private study and began practicing law in Selma in 1866.  In 1885, he moved to Birmingham and became general counsel for the Elyton Land Company.  In the city, he enjoyed a large and lucrative practice, taking an active interest in education, politics and public affairs while raising six children with his wife, Alice Ann (Bailey) Ward.  He became a popular public speaker, giving orations and addresses at various events.  In the early 20th century, he published several historical works, including a paper entitled “The Building of the State,” for the Alabama Historical Society.  He died at his home in Birmingham in 1910, just in time to see the comet come back to the sky.

So, can you tell much from a man’s empty lunch box?  In this case, I guess you can.  Captain William Columbus Ward was a very busy man.  He did not have time, during the day, to go home at noon (to deal with a wife and six children).  He barely had time at work to eat lunch.  As a former soldier in the Confederate service, he probably became very used to eating little at midday anyway.  The size of his lunch box was just right.  It is now on display in the History Center’s new exhibit case in the lobby of the Alabama Theatre, an appropriate place for a man who enjoyed giving public presentations.  One man’s lunchbox, one man’s story.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Felicia permalink
    November 30, 2011 11:31 am

    Captain W.C. Ward is my great grandfather. We are seating at my sister’s table with his grandson, William Ward Huffman, and 3 great grandchildren! What a treat to read your article. We have so many questions and wondered if you could help us. Where did the lunch box come from and do you have access to more information. We always wondered where Ken Burns found his information (Daddy knew of a diary but has not seen it since his childhood) you know anything about a diary? We have letters he wrote to his wife Alice Goodhue Ward and the letters she wrote to him. We have his mint julep recipe he served daily to General Ed Rucker, General Robert Johnson,Captain Sems, and one Yankee (!) Captain Dwyer. We have newspaper clippings of Capt. Ward’s house, his obituary, and the history of Southside Baptist Church.
    Daddy spent a lot of his retirement years on genealogy so you can imagine how exciting it was to us to see your article!


    • Dez permalink
      November 30, 2011 11:45 am

      Felicia, I am very pleased to hear from you. Captain Ward must have been an interesting person – I do know that he was a good historian, having published several monographs. Please call me at the History Center – 205-202-4146 or e-mail me at We would be interested in acquiring or copying the family information that you have about Captain Ward.

      The lunch box came to us from the Oak Hill Cemetery collection.


  2. Tom Wyatt permalink
    August 22, 2011 1:54 pm

    Where was Ward’s home? Does it still exist?


    • Dez permalink
      August 23, 2011 10:16 am

      Ward’s home is listed in the 1905 City Directory as 1717 12th Avenue South, an area that one time had the homes of some of Birmingham’s most influential citizens. The area was known as Nabob Hill, many of the homes were in the Queen Anne Style and were quite ornate. In 1927, the City acquired these homes, demolished most of them and built Ramsay HIgh School, which stands there today.


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