Today I'm pleased to introduce a guest blogger, my buddy Skip Torrans, owner of Torrans Manufacturing Company in Jefferson, Texas, which manufactures retro-inspired metal lawn furniture and picnic coolers. He is also the author of "A History of the Metal Lawn Chair...What We Know Now." Skip is a kindred spirit, lover of all things vintage and nostalgic, and a talented storyteller.
Please enjoy his thoughts below, a wistful stroll through beautiful, mid-century picnic coolers.
Acton Vintage Metal Picnic Coolers
Just the very mention of anything vintage or retro conjures up nostalgic mental images of happy times from what has affectionately become termed as “back in the day.” It’s a play on words your parents or grandparents would say when admonishing you over some seemingly odd infraction or other. Something like, “Why back when I was a kid we didn’t have electric lights and fancy TV sets. All we had was rocks and sticks, and we threw them at the barn. Now that was fun!” So now when we hear someone say “back in the day” we generally know they mean that period of time relevant to them as a kinder, gentler past more closely associated with the post-World War II era. There’s just something about the late 1940’s, 50’s and ‘60’s that lights a spark in our heart and causes us to wax nostalgic. Please join me now and take a brief sojourn to “back in the day.”
At the risk of sounding like an old dude, and I kind of am; back when I was kid - we had a small, square shaped, glossy red Coca-Cola ice chest made out of stamped metal with a lid that snapped down to hold it in place. This little cooler held a nice supply of six ounce cokes, and it was my particular job to make sure we didn’t carry any of them back home. I was routinely quite successful in this and sometimes much to the astonishment of my parents when it could be heard “Who drank up all the dang Cokes!” In my defense, it only held about eight or ten bottles and was nicknamed a six-pack picnic cooler by its manufacturer. The methodology behind my picnic cooler was that of both providing an attractive platform for continued advertising and a suitable vehicle for carrying along chilled items on short outings. We took our little cooler with us everywhere…fishing, camping, vacations, family trips, birthday parties and what have you. I’m very thankful my folks took relatively good care of it because it’s now on permanent display in our home along with other remembrances of my younger years, back in the day.
The manufacturer of the six pack coolers was Acton Manufacturing Co., Inc., and they resided in Arkansas City, Kansas. You may see where they are reported to have been made in the state of Arkansas but I’m sure this is just a result of confusing the town with the state. Acton was a rather prolific maker of advertising marketed coolers and other accessories intended to be branded with a company logo, to be used as promotional products. Of course, the most notable was Coca-Cola, but they also serviced 7-UP, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Grapette, Royal Crown and others. I seem to recall asking my dad where our cooler came from, and he said from a filling station that had them stacked up like cord wood in the front window next to the wiper blades and oil cans. He was unable to sight any sort of price but knowing my dad, it was not such a grand figure or we wouldn’t have one today. They did represent a somewhat substantial value owing to their stamped steel construction, robust lid locking mechanism, compactness, integral bottle opener and catchy good looks. The human mind is attentive to most anything in glossy red color so that in itself helped to sell tens of thousands.
Unfortunately, for all their good looks and practicality, they suffered a couple of detractive issues. Ones made of steel were consequently subject to the ravages of rust. However, many surviving examples, thankfully seem to have mostly avoided this malady to any great extent. Vintage pieces are routinely found in perfectly usable condition without much worry. Secondly, their insulation was a product of the period which means it was rudimentary and not very efficient. This material was primarily a natural grown fiber known as kapok. It is harvested from a large growing deciduous tree native to tropical rain forests and sometimes goes under the name java cotton. Back in the day as it were, kapok was a widely universal material serving duty as both a filler and insulation for such things as life vests, stuffing for toys, pillows, mattresses and of course in our lovable red Coke coolers.
The kapok material bears a striking resemblance to cotton and is often confused as such. Its inherent problem is that it eventually absorbs water and thus dries out rather slowly. If you’re old enough to have been a boating or fishing aficionado in the late 1940’s to 60’s you might have used a life vest filled with kapok and noticed how it got heavier as time went on and also how it seemed to lose its springy feel. Kapok used as insulation in a cooler was subject to moisture from condensation and lost a good deal of its insulative qualities over a relatively short time. And, the thickness when used as a lining material was generally too thin to provide much of a barrier to atmospheric temperatures. The little cooler was perfectly functional for a few hours but it was not much use after a long hot day or lengthy road trip.
When searching for vintage examples, one will undoubtedly locate several in a very short period of time. As I said, they were produced in huge numbers from the late 1940’s to well into the ‘60s and there is a plethora of availability. Auction sites routinely will have several offerings from virtually perfect or what is called New Old Stock (NOS) which means it has pretty much not been out of the box if ever to some rather sad pieces with lots of patina. Some will have so much patina you might not be able to recognize it. As a potential buyer or collector, you will want to know which models to look for and their comparable prices.
The Acton Six Pack or Junior cooler is a very common item but has been reproduced extensively and some are extremely well made and true to the originals in many ways. Coca-Cola continues to license these products as do lots of the breweries, automobile companies, sports teams and nostalgic products no longer in production but then there are plenty which are plain finished without decals or logos.
Let’s look at some of the more collectable pieces and why that is. Since our subject manufacturer is Acton, I will stay within their product line for purposes of this discussion. In the portable cooler category, Acton made at least ten different models in sizes from 12 to 36 bottle capacity. Their smallest was the Junior and research indicates there were two sub-models. One has the integral bottle opener located in the middle of one end while the other is located closer to the edge and the top. The Junior was made both in steel with baked on enamel finish and in stainless steel left in natural finish. The stainless version is quite collectable with substantial asking prices commiserate with condition. Within the same Acton line of portables, there were both steel and aluminum models conversely available. The aluminum examples are highly sought after owing to their difficulty to have successfully survived years of active duty.
Acton also produced a series of accessory items ranging from stamped aluminum ash trays, six pack bottle totes, coaster sets, bottle openers and vending stands for the coolers to sit on. Of course, these extra items would be considered highly valuable and collectable. In my own collection, I have an aluminum Coca Cola six pack carrier that was a common take along my mother used when going to the store. This was designed, and again, back in the day to take away six, 6oz Coca Cola bottles from our local Safeway before the cardboard carriers became popular. And, some of you will well remember the required empty deposit the clerk collected if you did not have your return bottles with you. That would have been a nickel per bottle! I only needed to collect two good bottles, broken or chipped didn’t count, take them into the store clerk, collect a dime and go to the coke machine and buy an ice cold bottled drink! Hard times hit us kids when the deposit dropped to three cents which meant to buy a ten cent coke, you now needed to collect four empties virtually doubling the effort. I don’t know how we made it!
I hope you’ve enjoyed his short trip down memory lane, and perhaps you’ve learned a thing or two about collecting Acton Picnic Coolers.