You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
As this segment airs, we’re days away from the beginning of the biggest part of Wisconsin’s deer hunting season. As thousands of Wisconsinites head into the woods, the last thing they want to worry about is whether the sun is going to cook the sandwiches they left back in the truck. November weather is too temperamental to count on the air to refrigerate your lunch. I last aired this piece in the summer, but it’s no less relevant this time of year. So now, expanded and in higher sound quality, I’d like to discuss today a bit of kit that’s simultaneously overlooked, yet ubiquitous.
The insulated cooler has existed, commercially, for seventy years. At a glance, it has remained much the same over that time: a box in which you keep ice, food, and drinks. But look closer, and you can see the subtle ways in which the cooler has changed. These changes reveal parallel changes in what we value, as consumers, and as Americans. To show you what I mean, let’s go back to the beginning.
People have been chilling food and drinks with ice for a long time. Centuries before the modern refrigerator was invented, people would store their perishables in insulated boxes, packed with ice. However, despite being basically the same technology, the ice box actually prevented the cooler from becoming a thing. You see, people used ice boxes because they couldn’t make cold. The only option at the time was to harvest ice whenever it naturally occurred, and store it, insulated, until it melted, and was no longer of use. So, in a time when ice, and therefore refrigeration, was a finite resource, chipping a bit off and carrying it out to a picnic would have been considered kind of wasteful.
All this changed in the 20th century. With the proliferation of electricity in America, advancements in refrigeration came quickly. By the early 1940’s, many households had fridges and freezers which we would recognize today. Ice was finally widely available, but then, war broke out, and distracted the world’s inventors from the cooler’s inevitable ascendence.
The cooler’s time finally came in the fifties. It’s not clear who exactly invented it first, but the Australians put the first successful model to market, an insulated metal box, with room for six beers and some accompanying food. They called it the Esky, and though they’ve stopped putting a cartoon Inuit on the label, the name has stuck around, both as a brand, and as a catch-all name for a cooler down-under.
I don’t know much about Australian history, but I can see why the cooler caught on in the U.S. not long after. The 1950’s were a time of great change in the states. The G.I. Bill sent record numbers of returning veterans to college, white people fled to the suburbs by the millions, and somewhat less seismic, but related to the topic at hand, Little League Baseball started to really take off. So, people had ice on hand, money to spend, and places to be, outdoors, far from any soda shops, or bars. There was an obvious need for a device to transport refreshments, and keep them, well, refreshing!
The first coolers were much like the cars of the day, heavy and solid, with metal all over the place. But the 1950’s was also a time of innovation in plastics, and as their production became more common, coolers adopted the new material to save on weight and cost. Over the next few decades, Americans grew to love big-box superstores, buildings with the shelf space to house every possible size and price point of every product on the market, and cooler selection expanded to match.
After selling every size of cooler any reasonable person would want to buy, where could the market expand next? In the nineties and two-thousands, kitsch was king. If your product had the right loud aesthetic, there was a market for it, somewhere. Oddball cars like the Hummer and PT Cruiser sold well. Themed restaurants, think Bubba Gump or the Rainforest Cafe, swept the nation. Even the Wisconsin Dells theme parks all blossomed out of this era. And riding the crest of this tacky wave was the Big Bobber Floating Cooler.
The Big Bobber is exactly what it sounds like, a hollow sphere of red and white plastic, hinged in the middle, shaped like a foot-wide fishing bobber. It’s worth pointing out, most coolers are “floating coolers,” the Big Bobber is not special in this way. But it is special in the reaction it elicits. It’s big, it’s silly, and I smile every time I see one. The company that originated them has now hard-pivoted to selling only knives and sharpeners, and to me, the Big Bobber has become a symbol of a simpler time.
The polar opposite of the Big Bobber rose to prominence with modern social media. There have always been ways to be both outdoorsy and fashionable, but Instagram and YouTube influencers have taken this to another level. In the quest to portray an idealized lifestyle, social media has created a market for products whose form is just as important as function. This phenomenon has affected the cooler market in many ways, most spectacularly with the Coolest.
The Coolest was meant to be better than other coolers. Because it wasn’t just a cooler, it was the Coolest. Get it? It was a large, rolling, plastic cooler, molded in a sharp, attractive profile. It was meant to be an all-in-one party station, including a built-in blender, battery, bluetooth speaker, and device charger. In 2014, its creator posed it as the cooler of the future, and the internet agreed, forking over 13 million dollars to make it happen. Then a year passed, then five. It turns out, it’s really hard to start a manufacturing company. In the end, they weren’t able to make enough, or make a profit. The company shut down in 2019, without delivering anything to 20,000 of its Kickstarter backers.
Maybe the Coolest approached innovation in the wrong way. In the same timeframe, Yeti has become a juggernaut by making simple improvements. Better insulation, more durable plastic, bear-proof latches. I could argue all day whether these things make a cooler worth four hundred dollars, but the brand has certainly become worth quite a bit. You probably know someone who has at least a Yeti brand coffee mug. Those aren’t really any different than products Thermos has made for decades, but all Yeti products get a boost from the rock solid reputation of the company’s flagship cooler line. It seems the way to make a fashionably outdoorsy product is not to make one gadget that does everything, like the Coolest. Rather, successful companies in the space make a brick, a product that is at least perceived as extremely capable doing one thing, so overbuilt, that it should last decades being dragged around the least hospitable places on earth. Or at least, it looks that way, so it looks really cool the next time you bring it out to the tailgate.
So, what’s next? What does the future of coolers reflect about the future of our society? Hopefully, a new emphasis on sustainability. I haven’t talked much about disposable coolers, because they haven’t changed since the 50’s. Styrofoam is a great insulator, and cheap to make, but everyone knows it’s terrible for the environment. Regardless, there hasn’t been a better option, until the last couple years. In addition to styrofoam, companies are now selling coolers made from wax and tree pulp. They look like cardboard, and are completely biodegradable, but they totally work as coolers! I think people might be wary of adopting new products in this vein, as paper straws have soured public opinion on biodegradable food products. I haven’t tested a compostable cooler personally, but the video reviews I’ve seen have been promising. Unlike paper straws, these coolers don’t dissolve on contact with water, and can hold up to multiple uses. It’s early in their product cycle, so they could have disadvantages we don’t know about yet, but for now, I’m just excited to see companies still innovating.
I’m guessing ten straight minutes of cooler talk is all any of you can stand. I’m going to end the segment, but if you’d like to talk more about coolers, especially the Big Bobber, please reach out to me at email@example.com. Or, if you’re as done with this topic as I suspect, suggest a different one! I promise, I’m going back to parks and stuff next week. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.