We use them at tailgates, backyard barbeques, and cross-country road trips. Did you ever stop and wonder, though, where did my portable cooler come from? These items get the party started, but few people know much about their history.
Who invented the cooler? Why? Chill out and get ready to explore the fascinating history of coolers!
Maryland farmer Thomas Moore invented the ice box. Named the Refrigeratory, this was an oval tub made from cedar wood and lined with rabbit fur.
An engineer named Ray “Otis” McIntire created Styrofoam for Dow Chemical. Shortly after its invention, this material was used to insulate everything from ice chests to basement walls.
Igloo started getting into the cooler game with steel buckets for water. These were used in oil fields throughout Texas to keep the workers hydrated.
Richard C. Laramy of Joliet, Illinois filed a patent for the “Portable Ice Chest and the Like.” Rather than using flimsy foam, he used heavy-duty metal that increased durability.
Coleman, an outdoor recreation company with over 100 years in the game, acquired the rights to the cooler. They went on to eventually trade the metal for plastic and give the ice chest its more recognized name, “cooler.”
Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, and many other drink companies started advertising with portable coolers. These were so successful that bigger versions were eventually made for stores, restaurants, and food courts.
Igloo left their metalworking roots behind and became known for a variety of stylish coolers. One of their earliest models looked like a picnic basket and came in a limited number of colors.
Soft plastics, like vinyl and nylon, became popular for lunch containers and coolers. These materials were less durable than hard plastic or metal, but were way easier to clean.
Igloo released the first wheeled cooler with a convenient handle. The wheels made portability way easier, allowing Igloo to increase the storage size of their coolers.
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Brothers Ryan and Roy Seiders started Yeti. Their coolers are top of the line, using the same process as the boating industry for extra durability and chilliness.
Neoprene, the same material used in wetsuits, started getting used in lunch bags and coolers. This material is waterproof and extremely easy to wash.
Orion became another cooler company on the market. Their products are made in the USA and are available in fun designs like camouflage, tie-dye, and patriotic red, white, & blue.
The SolarCooler is the world’s first solar-powered cooler. It was designed by Ryan McGann and can maintain a temperature of about 42°F for up to 24 hours.
This was a big year for portable coolers. Inventor Ryan Grepper raised over $13 million and faced a lot of controversy as a result of the Coolest Cooler, which features a blender, Bluetooth Speaker, and many other features.
Fridge Freezers from Australia make it easy for you to take your refrigerator on the road. These powerful coolers are designed to handle extreme conditions and keep food as cold as 0°F.
The Krewser is a cooler scooter that gives new meaning to the word “portable.” For about $2000, you can even get one that’s custom wrapped and fitted with speakers.
Barrels of Fun
The beginning of the cooler starts with wooden barrels, which were made popular by the ancient Romans. You may know these wooden crates as what Donkey Kong throws at Mario in the classic arcade game. Back in the day, though, barrels were a crucial way to store food and drinks.
Barrels even led to the success of important events like the exploration of the Pacific Ocean. In 1770, Captain James Cook filled these wood containers with dried foods and set sail toward New Zealand. The sturdy oak barrels were able to keep everyone well-fed, which helped reduce the number of sailors affected by scurvy from lack of nutrients.
During this time, many merchants and explorers traveled long journeys overseas to trade commodities like wine, beer, and spirits with other countries. The barrel was an important part of those expeditions. While these wood crates are a far cry from the portable coolers we use today, they still had an important role to play in what was to come in the future.
Who Invented Ice Boxes?
Ice boxes were invented by a Maryland farmer named Thomas Moore in 1802. He was looking for an easy way to transport his homemade butter to local markets, and as a result, created an oval tub called “The Refrigeratory.”
As amazing as barrels were in early exploration, they weren’t very well-insulated. The Refrigeratory completely changed the game. This patented device was made from cedar and fitted with a rectangular tin box that was packed with crushed ice and snow. To keep the ice from melting, Moore fitted the box with cloth lined in rabbit fur. The invention went on to receive a special seal of approval from Thomas Jefferson. The president even had a bigger icehouse built on his Virginia estate to store meat, butter, and his personal favorite, ice cream!
Selling ice became big business as a result of the Refrigeratory. Many restaurants, hotels, butchers, and fish sellers started using this ice box. Meanwhile, special freight ice boxes were built for the railroads that made it was easier to deliver fresh food all over the country. This completely changed the way we eat today, and it all started with one farmer and his need to insulate butter!
Of course, we couldn’t rely on barrels and tubs forever to store our food and drinks. The rise of new materials after the Industrial Revolution brought changes in the way the portable cooler was designed.
Starting with Styrofoam
We don’t give it a lot of thought, but common materials we use every day like plastic and metal weren’t always around. Styrofoam is another one on that list, and it turns out, it’s a great insulator that completely changed the food industry after it made its debut at Dow Chemical.
Ray “Otis” McEntire, an engineer at the chemical company, is credited for inventing polystyrene foam, aka Styrofoam, in 1947. His invention was groundbreaking, so much so that it immediately replaced cork in food warehouses. The material was a much better insulator and significantly drove down the cost of storing food as a result.
Sixteen years after it was invented, Styrofoam was also used to create portable ice chests. They were easy to carry and could keep ice cubes from melting for up to 24 hours on hot days. It was pretty much like taking a food warehouse with you on-the-go!
In recent years, there has been a ban on Styrofoam coolers in many major cities such as New York and Washington DC. This ban is due to the harmful nature of polystyrene foam, which can’t be recycled and isn’t biodegradable.
Still, it’s not all bad news! In 2017, three young inventors named Ashton Cofer, Luke Clay, and Julia Bray figured out a way to convert Styrofoam into filtered water for a science project at school. Their idea may be all it takes to safely use foam coolers in the future!
Who Invented the Cooler?
Richard C. Laramy from Joliet, Illinois is credited for inventing the portable cooler. He received a patent for the “Portable Ice Chest and the Like” in December 1953. While “the like” part of his patent is vague, his metal design was able to comfortably hold a lot more than foam ice chests.
Laramy worked for Queen Stove Works, a business founded in Albert Lea, Minnesota in 1921. The family-owned company designed cooking and lighting equipment for camping, including ovens, stoves, lanterns, and space heaters. The ice chest was another item on their list. It was called “Kampkold” and featured snap-lock handles, a bottle opener, an aluminum or steel design, and eye-catching colors. The advertising referred to these coolers as “your home refrigerator away from home!”
While Queen Stove Works is no longer in operation, their legacy is still alive and well. According to the Freeborn Historical Museum, they are now known as Scotsman, a company still famous for their ice machines to this day!
The History of Coleman Coolers
After Queen Stove Works was sold in 1957, the Coleman Company acquired the patent for the ice chest. Sheldon Coleman, the president of the company at the time, was interested in adding more products to the line. Under this new guidance, the ice chest got a complete makeover, including bigger storage space. The most important change, however, came with switching the name from “Portable Ice Chest and the Like” to the much simpler, “cooler.”
Before then, Coleman was best known for their lanterns. The cooler helped change their brand, making their name synonymous with all aspects of the great outdoors. The first models were made from galvanized steel, which was extremely durable but difficult to carry. By 1957, Coleman subbed out the steel for plastic, a change that made their coolers more accessible for a wider range of people.
It’s difficult to imagine a world without plastic coolers. Coleman’s forward-thinking design is what makes it so easy to load up the car and hit the road. Today, you’ll still find their brand for sale at major retail stores like Walmart, Home Depot, and Target.
More Portable Coolers on the Market
Coolers were taking off at the speed of light, leading to the rise of more competition on the market. These containers also offered a great advertising opportunity for companies like Coca-Cola and Budweiser.
The History of Igloo Coolers
Over time, many other brands started getting into the cooler game. Perhaps the most notable in the pack is Igloo, a company from Texas that’s been in operation since 1947.
Igloo is best known for coolers that are made in the United States. When they first came out, they were simple steel buckets that were meant to hydrate workers on oil fields in Texas. Today, the brand has over 500 different models, including their trademark water dispensers which are available in bright yellow or orange. Perhaps the most notable model in their line, however, is the Playmate cooler. This super convenient model comes with a push-button swivel lid, a carrying handle, and a recognizable red color. The cooler even made its film debut in the 2008 Pixar film, Wall-E!
KHOU 11, a news channel in Houston, went behind the scenes at the Igloo manufacturing center in 2018. According to their report, more than 15 million Igloo coolers are made every year and the plant is open 24 hours a day. It just goes to show that good coolers are always in high-demand!
Advertising with Portable Coolers
As coolers became popular, many companies used them for advertising by printing their logo or name on the outside. These branded items were great publicity and have now become collector’s items.
Perhaps the company best known for their iconic promotional products is Coca-Cola. In the 1950s, they hired a sheet-metal manufacturing firm named Glascock Bros. to create portable coolers. These were made from steel, fitted with a galvanized liner that kept them from rusting, and printed with the recognizable cursive logo. Some also came equipped with a convenient sandwich tray. Coca-Cola’s portable coolers were massively successful and paved the way for those larger branded coolers you sometimes see at restaurants or food courts.
Of course, Coca-Cola wasn’t the only brand to advertise with coolers. Budweiser, Pepsi, Coors, and many other companies also used branded coolers for a marketing boost. Nowadays, you’ll see companies in and outside of the drink market advertising with these giveaways.
Take a look at some notable brands that have advertised with coolers!