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Paul Holley
By Paul Holley

John Oster Sr. grew a business in Racine and gave the world the classic Osterizer blender.

Oster (1891-1963) was born in Austria-Hungary and emigrated to the United States at age 14. Settling in Chicago, the ambitious young man learned English at night school and became an apprentice tool and die maker.

He moved to Racine in 1912 and in 1918, became one of the partners (along with Matthew Andis, who later launched Andis Clipper Co.) forming the Andis Tool Co. After leaving that partnership, Oster teamed with Len Kobal and O.E. Lackner to launch the John Oster Manufacturing Co. in 1924. (Kobal died in 1948. Lackner retired as the Oster company’s engineering manager in 1961.)

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John Oster hired industrial designer Alfonso Iannelli to create product and packaging designs.  Some of the work is now on display at the Racine Heritage Museum.

John Oster Manufacturing originally did tool and die work and produced hand-operated hair clippers from a plant at 16th and Ann streets. Its first breakthrough product, in 1928, was an electric clipper designed to cut and style the new, shorter bobbed hair style for women. The clipper’s blades were made narrow to fit the contours of a woman’s neck.

More innovations followed. In 1933, John Oster received a patent for a detachable hair clipper blade. Oster’s 1937 introduction of a hot lather dispenser replaced the traditional shaving brush and mug in barbershops around the country.

The World War II period of the 1940s dramatically changed the John Oster Manufacturing Co. As a wartime defense contractor, the company’s expertise in producing fractional horsepower electric motors was put to use in aviation instruments, guns, radios and the then-new technology known as radar. A new Oster Avionics division was formed and housed in the massive Terminal Building at 1 Main Street.

Meanwhile, desiring diversification beyond barber/beauty products, John Oster acquired Stevens Electric Co. in 1946. That company’s Stephen J. Poplawski had invented a successful drink mixer in 1922 to make malts in drug store soda fountains. Poplawski had also experimented with a food blender that used an electric motor and blades to chop vegetables, fruits, etc. into a fluid state.

Oster’s engineers took over the blender project and, voila, the Osterizer was born!

But, John Oster wasn’t satisfied with household appliances that worked well – they had to look good, too! He hired artist and industrial designer Alfonso Iannelli (1888-1965) to create product and packaging designs. Iannelli Studios’ designs for Oster, described as “counter top works of art,” helped define modernism in everyday life.

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The drink mixer produced by Racine’s John Oster Manufacturing Co. became a soda fountain staple.

In addition to the Osterizer blender, Iannelli’s striking designs appeared on the Osterett hand mixer (1948), Oster Model 202 hair dryer (1950) and the Oster Model 500 double action knife sharpener.

(To learn more about Alfonso Iannelli’s modernism design work in Racine, visit the exhibit “Blessings to Blenders” through Oct. 31 at the Racine Heritage Museum, 701 Main St. The museum is open daily – free admission.)

Other popular Oster houseware products of the 1950s included a massage pillow, a humidifier, an ice crusher, a juicer attachment for the Osterizer and an electric meat grinder.

The Oster housewares and barber/beauty products manufacturing moved from Racine to a Milwaukee factory the late ‘40s. The avionics division, which eventually included instruments used in guided missiles, remained in the Downtown Racine location (just south of the Main Street bridge).

John Oster retired as company president in 1952 leaving the day-to-day operations to his sons, John Jr. and Robert. By 1957, total employment at the company’s plants and offices in Wisconsin and Tennessee was 1,500, compared with just 15 people back in 1924.

The Oster family sold the business to Chicago-based Sunbeam Corp. in 1960. The avionics division moved out of Racine in 1964-65. (The building was torn down in 1991 to make way for new development; BMO-Harris Bank sits in its place.)

In 1971, the John Oster Manufacturing Co. was renamed the Oster Corp. By the end of that year, all production of Oster/Sunbeam housewares and barber/beauty products had been relocated to Tennessee and Mexico.

It was a heck of a run and the Osterizer blender lives on.

(Material for this story came from “Invention City: The Sesquicentennial History of Racine, Wisconsin” by John Buenker (Racine Heritage Museum, 1998), Racine Heritage Museum archives and Wikipedia.)

(Gadgets and Geeks is an ongoing series of stories that highlight inventions from Racine County. Pay close attention, because on Wednesday, June 26, from 6 to 8 p.m., the Racine County Eye will hold Gadgets and Geeks Trivia Night at The Brickhouse, 316 Main St. Trivia answers will be gleaned from these stories.)

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Paul Holley is retired from careers in journalism, public relations and marketing but not from life. These days, he pretty much writes about what he feels like writing. You may contact him directly at:...