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How it Happened: Butter helped invent the ice chest

You might call it a cooler or ice chest. You may refer to it by its manufacturer’s name, like Igloo or Yeti. No matter. We all have at least one ice chest, but you may not know how this camping essential originated. Sit back, grab a cold one from your Coleman Cooler, and read all about it.

The refrigeratory

In 1802, a Maryland farmer, Thomas Moore, invented what he named a “Refrigeratory.” (Much later, he renamed it the “refrigerator.”)

Moore had a problem. He needed a device that would allow him to deliver chilled, fresh butter to his patrons. Finding nothing suitable, Moore decided to fashion a solution on his own. He made a tub from cedar wood and lined it with tin. In between the tin and wood, Moore placed ice. He wrapped the outside of his invention with rabbit fur and covered the fur with heavy, coarse cloth. Moore topped his “refrigeratory” with a tin lid that hinged to open and close. Moore’s refrigerator was portable and easily contained his butter, keeping it cool during his 20-mile sales route.

With his new refrigeratory, Moore was able to transport his butter successfully during the daylight hours. This eliminated his usual nighttime deliveries. (Prior to the refrigeratory, Moore made his deliveries at night, when the heat of the day would not melt the butter.)

Moore’s patent was signed by none other than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson liked Moore’s invention so much, that he purchased one for himself! Later on, Jefferson had a much larger refrigerator built on his estate. It held fresh produce, meat, and the ice cream that Jefferson so enjoyed!

Over time, improvements were made to Moore’s invention. Soon many households owned their personal refrigerator or ice box. The refrigerator spawned a whole new enterprise: ice delivery. Moore’s refrigerator had become a household appliance.

Styrofoam

Ray ‘Otis’ McIntire, a Dow chemical research engineer, advanced the ice chest idea. It was 1944, and World War II raged on. Dow was eager to find an alternative to imported rubber, which was needed for the war effort.

McIntire’s experiments led him to discover Styrofoam, a material containing millions of tiny air pockets. Styrofoam was used as a rubber replacement in many different products, one being insulation for ice chests.

Igloo

In 1947, the Igloo Manufacturing Company began operations in Houston, Texas. The company made large, portable, tin water containers for oil workers to drink from. Igloo was the first manufacturer to insulate their water containers or coolers. This made it possible to keep the water chilled, even in the brutal Texas summer heat.

Ice Chest

The idea of insulating a portable food and/or water container was advanced in 1953 by Richard Laramy. Laramy worked for Queen Stove Works, a company that designed camping equipment. Combining Thomas Moore’s invention with Otis McIntire’s invention, Laramy made what he named and patented a “Portable Ice Chest and the Like.”

Lining a tin chest with Styrofoam, Laramy placed ice inside the insulated box to keep foods refrigerated. Laramy marketed his camping ice chest as “your home refrigerator away from home.”

Coleman

The Coleman Company bought Laramy’s patent for a “Portable Ice Chest and the Like” in 1957. The company president, Sheldon Coleman, wanted to broaden his brand (known for its camp lantern) with new products, so he introduced the easier-to-pronounce “Coleman Cooler.”

Coleman’s first coolers were made from steel and were quite heavy. Switching to plastic made the coolers easier to handle and the Coleman brand became widely recognized, especially among campers. It remains so today.

Today’s coolers/ice chests

A relative newcomer to the ice chest market is Yeti. Brothers Roy and Ryan Seiders developed this latest innovation in coolers in 2006. The Seiders brothers wanted a cooler that they could stand on while fishing. They needed something durable, so they investigated the process called rotational molding (also called rotomolding). When rotomolding, a plastic mold is heated and continuously rotated while powdered polyethylene is added. This process ensures a uniform or even thickness in the resulting product. The Seiders use this process to form the “shell” of their ice chest.

Now it was time to find an insulator. Knowing that Styrofoam has a negative impact on the environment, the Seiders looked for an alternative. They decided to use polyurethane, which they discovered kept ice frozen longer than the usual Styrofoam. A full two inches of polyurethane is injected into the Yeti’s shell for optimal insulation. Yeti continues to gain in popularity and is worth $5 billion today.

Other innovations in ice chests are coming. Already there is the Coolbox featuring USB ports and a waterproof Bluetooth speaker. There’s also the SolarCooler which uses solar energy to cool its contents. With more than forty different cooler companies vying for the RVers’ attention, we’re certain to see new configurations and transformations in the years to come.

What brand of cooler or ice chest do you own? Tell us and explain why in the comments below.

Does all this ice chest talk remind you that you need a new one? Try here.

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Neal Davis
19 days ago

We have a Coleman ice chest and a Dometic one. The Coleman is old school, plastic and styrofoam, requiring ice packs. The Dometic is newer and can act as a refrigerator OR freezer for each of the two compartments. It is cooled using AC or DC electric current and easily fits in the storage bays of our RV (as does the Coleman). Have wondered why Yetis are so expensive; thanks for helping me understand. 🙂

Larry Lee
19 days ago

I recall our original 1958 chest style cooler which was clad in aluminum metal and touted as stronger than plastic, which it apparently was until we left it overnight on a picnic table at our campsite where it underwent destructive testing by an adult bear intent on obtaining the food inside it. A little teeth and claw work eliminated any further use of the latch and allowed the bear complete access to every bit of our chilled food while also removing an entire corner of the cooler lid. The remainder of our weekend was fueled with crackers and canned tuna fish washed down with warm soda. It was still a great family tent-camping trip we “boys” all remember fondly, especially the part where dad was trying to find objects to throw at the bear while the bear totally ignored his efforts.

Thomas D
1 month ago

I have some brand if Thermo-Electric that keeps around 40ⁿ it’s a power hog but we only use it when we will have FHU. It works on 12 volt or 120 with adapter. So it’s powered by rv batteries until we are plugged in again.
Sorry I don’t know the name of it

Gene L
1 month ago

I believe I have an original steel Colman Cooler that belonged to my dad. When we went on vecation he would put it in the back seat on the floor. Me being the youngest that became my seat for the trip. I now use it in my RV under the dinette seat. It fits perfectly. I am 75, so the cooler has to be 68-70 years old.

Primo Rudy's Roadhouse
1 month ago

Through the years, we have accumulated numerous coolers. We have worn out our share, also. Most of our current coolers are some variety of Coleman or igloo. Would like to get a Yeti or similar, but can’t justify the cost, when we have more coolers than we need.

Tom H
1 month ago

We use a lifetime cooler. Similar in look to the yeti but much cheaper. Keeps ice for a few days.

Dan A
1 month ago

Among others, I still have my original green steel and plastic Coleman that I bought in 1972.

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