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The History of Portable Coolers

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!

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In this day and age, access to cold is so easy there’s no need to think about it. The use of it is entwined in the everyday and the extraordinary.

– Tom Jackson, author of Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again

Hour Glass

History of Coolers Timeline

Keep it cool and wow your friends with a little trivia. You’ll find out how the portable cooler evolved and what the future has in store!

  • 1802

    http://researchingfoodhistory.blogspot.com/2012/04/thomas-moores-refrigerator.html

    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.

  • 1944

    https://www.wired.com/2009/02/feb-10-1957-birth-of-the-cooler/

    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.

  • 1947

    http://metalicechest.com/tag/ship/

    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.

  • 1953

    https://patents.google.com/patent/US2663157A/en

    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.

  • 1954

    https://www.orioncoolers.com/a-brief-history-of-the-ice-cooler-with-orion-coolers-as-the-star-of-the-final-chapter/

    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.”

  • 1960

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/308426274451109807/

    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.

  • 1962

    https://www.etsy.com/shop/LucyBettyNJune

    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.

  • 1970s

    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.

  • 1990s

    https://www.igloocoolers.com/collections/hard-coolers/blue

    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.

  • 2006

    Climbing Magazine, 2017

    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.

  • 2012

    Neoprene, the same material used in wetsuits, started getting used in lunch bags and coolers. This material is waterproof and extremely easy to wash.

  • 2014

    https://store.orioncoolers.com/products/orion-45.html

    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.

  • 2014

    https://www.kegworks.com/blog/the-solarcooler-worlds-first-portable-solar-powered-refrigerating-cooler/

    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.

  • 2014

    https://coolest.com/products/coolest-cooler

    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.

  • 2017

    https://www.arbusa.com/portable-fridge-freezers/

    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.

  • 2019

    https://www.kreweser.com/collections/kreweser-motorized-cooler/products/kreweser-custom-wrap-w-integrated-speakers

    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.

How Did Early Humans Preserve Food and Drinks?

Transporting food and drinks from point A to point B isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Early storage units, like barrels and ice boxes, were used as early as 10,000 years ago!

Barrels of Fun

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.

Barrels of Fun

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?

Thomas Moore https://www.biography.com/people/thomas-jefferson-9353715

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!

Thomas Moore https://www.biography.com/people/thomas-jefferson-9353715

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!

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People have known for a long time that cold temperatures preserve food.

– Judith Jango-Cohen, author of The History of Food

The Beginning of Portable Coolers

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.

https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/tx31qj223

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.

https://www.orioncoolers.com
https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/tx31qj223

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.

https://www.orioncoolers.com

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!

Learn more from these young inventors about their game-changing project!

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.

Freeborn County Historical Museum

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!”

Freeborn County Historical Museum

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.”

https://www.ebay.com

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.

https://www.ebay.com

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.

Did you know?

In Australia, coolers are called “eskies” or “chilly bins,” while in the United Kingdom they’re known as “cool boxes.”

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.

https://iv1.lisimg.com/image/966380/450full-wall%C2%B7e-screenshot.jpg

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!

https://iv1.lisimg.com/image/966380/450full-wall%C2%B7e-screenshot.jpg

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!

Bundle up and check out how Igloo coolers are made!

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.

https://www.campingworld.com/coca-cola-classic-ice-chest-54-qt

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.

https://www.campingworld.com/coca-cola-classic-ice-chest-54-qt

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!

Portable Coolers in the Modern World

In this day and age, it’s all about quality and a few extra bells and whistles. A couple notable brands are dominating the market for portable coolers, and one of the most recognizable among them is Yeti.

Who Invented Yeti Coolers?

Two brothers, Ryan and Roy Seiders, started Yeti in 2006. As kids, they spent their days fishing along the Texas coast, where they’d use a white cooler to store the catch of the day. The problem was this cooler wasn’t nearly as durable as the rest of the boat, and they needed to stand on it in order to cast to the fish.

https://www.chryslerjeepdodgesurprise.com/yeti-coolers.htm

The Yeti line was the answer to this problem. To create the coolers, Ryan and Roy use a process called rotational molding, which involves adding powdered polyethylene to a mold, heating it, and constantly rotating the material to ensure uniform thickness. The coolers also use polyurethane foam insulation so the ice lasts longer in addition to latches, hinges, drain plugs, and handles.

https://www.chryslerjeepdodgesurprise.com/yeti-coolers.htm

Over time, Yeti has gotten somewhat of a cult following. It got an endorsement from Aquaman himself, actor Jason Momoa, who praised the brand in an interview with GQ Magazine in 2017. Also leading to Yeti’s appeal is the fact that the coolers are certified as bear-proof! Rebecca Cathey, an Oklahoman retiree, was horrified when a bear tried to break into her cooler at a campground. The strong build made it impossible for the furry fellow to get inside.

From famous actors singing its praises to stopping bears in their tracks, Yeti has built a reputation as a reliable and trendy portable cooler. Today, the company has a ton of fans and is valued at about $5 billion!

Did you know?

In June 2013, police reported a crazy number of Yeti cooler thefts in Orange Beach, Alabama.

What Are Coolest Coolers?

The Coolest was created by Ryan Grepper who earned over $13 million on Kickstarter to bring his product to life. It features a waterproof Bluetooth speaker, built-in blender, USB charger, and many other features.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ryangrepper/coolest-cooler-21st-century-cooler-thats-actually

Although the Coolest was the result of the second biggest Kickstarter campaign of all time, it almost failed before it got off the ground! Grepper bit off more than he could chew and faced a lot of assembly issues with building the complex coolers. Over 62,000 people were waiting to receive one, and when nothing was delivered, Coolest faced a penalty from the Department of Justice. According to a report by Consumer Reports, the brand was required to set aside a portion of its net income and equally distribute it back to its original backers by 2020.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ryangrepper/coolest-cooler-21st-century-cooler-thats-actually

Coolest is still working on getting back on its feet and is now available online in a variety of fun, bright colors. Time will tell how this brand evolves, but for now, it seems like this could be a new frontier in cooler design!

Can Portable Coolers Save Lives?

The cooler has a fascinating history of keeping food and drinks cold. However, it has gone even beyond that in the 21st century. Today, the cooler is also instrumental in the field of medicine.

Take for instance the vaccine cooler backpack developed by engineering student Will Broadway of the United Kingdom. Vaccines need to be kept at 2 to 8° Celsius or they won’t be effective. This makes transporting them to remote communities and countries in need extremely difficult.

Will’s idea was to move away from using ice packs that cause the vaccines to lose potency and instead replacing them with a cooling system called ISOBAR that keeps the vaccines at the proper temperature for up to 30 days. If the bag starts to lose its temperature, it can be recharged using a propane stove.

Aside from vaccines, coolers have also been used to store blood and organs. It’s vital to keep both preserved for transplants, transfusions, and surgeries. The easy storage that comes from portable coolers is making a big difference!

Why Do We Love Coolers?

Coolers make you think of summertime when the sun is shining and the birds are singing. You’ll see these cold containers at family reunions, outdoor weddings, company picnics, and whole lot more. It’s an item that automatically makes you feel good vibes. Plus, it holds tasty snacks and drinks. What’s not to love?

Stats About Promos

The market size for coolers was valued at over $600 million in 2017.

There are over 40 different cooler brands in the United States.

The world’s largest cooler is 50 feet tall and was used for a Jim Beam commercial.

The Bottom Line

If you want to keep it cool, it’s all about having an awesome portable cooler. These containers have been part of major explorations and are even capable of saving lives. Next time you grab a drink, take the time to appreciate the incredible history of this party favorite!