1970s Stubby holder becomes ubiquitous

Vintage XXXX stubby holders - Image: Ebay

Who invented the stubby holder? The answer is, nobody knows. Although most sources seem to agree that the stubby holder is an Australian invention. The name itself is a reference to the squat 375ml beer bottle invented in the USA, once standard in Canada and defunct almost everywhere except for Australia’s Victoria Bitter. In the USA (where stubby bottles are a thing of the past) stubby holders are called Koozies (officially a brand name but now used generically).

Some accounts claim the stubby holder was invented in the 1980s. Not true. The earliest reference I can find in print dates from December 1970 and comes, oddly enough, from the Australian Women’s Weekly in an article about “The lively WRANs of HMAS Coonawarra” (not a ship, but a naval base near Darwin). According to the Weekly, the average WRAN made the most of life.

Above all, she has a knack of getting the most out of leisure time. For this she is usually equipped with a motor scooter, a bikini and other casual clothes, sometimes a “stubby-holder,” and a resourcefulness that makes the big round of events appear as if they were never really organised … The reference to stubby holders doesn’t mean the girls have a grog-session. In the heat, cool drinks are essential, and the holder is a must to keep the bottles cool.

The Weekly article puts paid to the many accounts suggesting that the stubby holder was invented in the mid-seventies, the late seventies or even the 1980s. Despite this, it seems almost every manufacturer of these now-ubiquitous drinking accessories has a different origin story. Among the many so-called inventors are…

Colin Gibson, who “came up with the idea of using old drink cans as insulation” as a way of keeping his drinks cold while fishing, sometime in the late 1970s.

…Brian Gilham, who “came up with the ingenious idea of using neoprene to keep his beer cold” – date not mentioned (in an article on printwear.com.au which now appears defunct).

…Bob Howe, reportedly a bookie who saw someone at the Tenant Creek races using broken bits of a foam Esky to insulate his stubby. According to the Pittwater Online News, Howe had stubby holders made in Melbourne and travelled around selling them from a converted bus.

….John Lamers of Melbourne, is mentioned in the same article. The date and nature of his contribution to the technology is unknown. All we’re told is that he was associated with the Footscray Football Club .

…Australian inventor Alex Lang, named in an American article about the history of the beer koozie as possibly “the first to build a contraption devoted to beer chilling”.

One name that appears in many articles is that of Shane Walsh. It seems Mr Walsh may have been instrumental in the development of the neoprene stubby holder in Australia and its enthusiastic adoption by the surfing fraternity. While early stubby holders were made from polystyrene foam, they had the disadvantage of being inflexible and therefore unsuited to the varying sizes of bottles and cans. Depending on the source, Shane Walsh’s contribution happened anywhere from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.

There are even American claimants. In 1933, Philip K. Toof is said to have designed a sleeve to keep his drink cold. In 1981, Bonnie McGough of Idaho invented one padded with goose down. Some years later, the American Koozie company developed one made from neoprene – supposedly the inspiration for Shane Walsh’s improved version.

Frustrating though it is, I’m afraid I can’t identify which – if any – of the stories are true. I can only conclude, as have many before me, that the true origin of the stubby holder will forever remain a mystery. And we’ll never know the nature of the ones those Navy girls were using, or where they came from.

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