Australia is often regarded as the hottest continent on earth. So it is no surprise that refrigeration forms a large part of our design history, including the Coolgardie Safe, culminating a great Aussie invention: the motorless insulated cooler box known as the Esky.
In 1884 a company called Malleys was formed in Sydney to make ice boxes, primarily using the work of sheet metal workers. They were named the ‘Eskimo Ice Box’, soon shortened to the nickname Esky, in the usual Aussie laconic tradition. Not long after Malleys made the motorised ‘Eskimo refrigerator’ which they made in various versions for the next 100 years.
In 1952 they returned to the unmotorized version, an ice box targeted for the boot of cars, which were then become becoming popular for travel and picnics. Called the ‘Esky Auto Ice Box’, the first version was made from sheet metal, given Malley's history of sophistication in this area. With an enamelled pressed metal exterior and interior and cork insulation in between, it had a top lid of galvanised metal and a handle to lock it in place on a rubber seal.
The first Esky was large, designed to hold six long neck bottles of beer, as well as having three trays for food. It was said to be “as essential in the boot of a car as a tyre jack” and advertised heavily in motoring publications. The design was immediately successful, available in any colour you wanted, provided it was green; with polished chrome trim, and a removable plug to drain water.
In 1955 Malleys launched a smaller portable version for the use outside the car, for walks or bar-b-cues, and in 1956 the range expanded to three colours. Malleys made over 500,000 Eskies in the first 10 years, and the design of the steel-based Esky lasted for another 30 years. Malleys marketed the Esky as “new look, smooth, sleek, streamlined” with the motto “Take the party with you”.
The name ‘Esky’ was not trade marked until 1961, but before that in 1959, Malleys introduced a cartoon of child in Eskimo outfit as the mascot. It lasted for 30 years until 1989, when its insensitivity to the indigenous Canadian Inuit peoples became too much to bear.Malley's joined with Whirlpool to make washing machines and other white goods that required folded enamelled steel, later using Bluescope Colorbond steel. As their other businesses gradually declined, they sold the Esky brand in 1984 to Nylex, a plastics company who then proceeded to change the production system of the cooler.
Nylex developed Eskies made from an outer shell of polypropylene, an inner of polyurethane, and interstitial polystyrene to provide the insulation. We might call this Esky ‘the 3 poly’s box’.
Early models had some metal parts, and like the earlier all-steel models were prone to rust. They soon became all plastic, which also made them lighter to carry. The portable Esky range increased, in colours and size, from the original 26 litres to more than 50 litres.
The new lightweight plastic model was said to be a lifesaving device in water accidents, where it could be an improvised life bouy; several reports cited people being saved by using the whole Esky or the lid as a flotation device after a boating accident.
Nylex also produced an all polystyrene Esky, which provided good insulation, but lacked the sturdiness of the more rigid model and deteriorated quickly. You couldn't stand on it if you wanted to see over other spectators at the footy or at the cricket, and as it broke up it became a major pollutant.
Nylex went into administration in 2009, and the Esky brand was bought by the outdoor recreation company Coleman Australia, who still continue to produce Eskies in Melbourne. They continue to be found camping, at the beach, in the bush, for outdoor dining and barbecues.
The Esky was featured in the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics. And in the stands, every attendee was given a promotional pack of a small polystyrene Esky containing other items of memorabilia.
The Esky is that rare thing: a true Australian icon, but thankfully the insensitive culturally inappropriate cartoon no longer appears on the product; and after 70 years we are now inured to the implied racism in the name. Still, it’s miles better than the gauche Kiwi version, the Chilly Bin (South Island pronunciation ‘Chully Bun’).
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