11 Ways People Beat the Heat Before Air Conditioning
Jun 15, 2023
By: Elizabeth Yuko
Published: August 18, 2023
At a time when 88 percent of U.S. households and most public buildings are air conditioned, it's hard to imagine life without the respite that artificially cooled spaces provide on a hot, humid day. In reality, though, it’s a relatively recent development.
Roughly a century ago, hospitals and factories were among the first in the United States to install air conditioning. Although manufacturers attempted to create residential units throughout the 1930s, they were still prohibitively bulky and costly for most homes. That started to change with the introduction of affordable window air conditioners in 1947. By 1960, 12 percent of American households had AC; two decades later, it was up to 55 percent.
Air conditioning may have caught on quickly, but the technology was a long time in the making. “Up until the advent of air conditioning, the concept of keeping cool was more evolutionary than revolutionary,” says Mark MacNish, the executive director of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, located on the North Fork of Long Island, New York, and home to a 17th-century English settlement. “Advances came slowly and incrementally.”
Here are 11 examples of those advances, and other ways people used to beat the heat.
Living and working in climate-controlled environments, much of our modern wardrobe—with the exception of some outerwear—can be worn year-round. That wasn’t the case even a few decades ago, though, when AC wasn’t as common, and there was more of a delineation between “summer” and “winter” clothes.
According to MacNish, this was also true for 17th- and 18th-century settlers in the northern parts of the American colonies, most of whom shifted from wearing heavy woolen garments in the winter, to those made from linen or cotton in the summer.
“The women that worked in the kitchen often had no choice but to wear woolen dresses because wool was more resistant to fire, and working near the open flame of the fireplace, catching fire was always a concern,” he explains.
“On a more private level, anecdotal evidence shows wealthier colonial women who were overcome by the heat could retire to their cellars, where it was cool, wearing nothing but a shift.”
Wealthy families weren’t the only ones to relocate during the sweltering summer months. Some of the early “inland” farmers on Long Island, for example, would spend the summer fishing along the shore, often only a mile or two from their homes, MacNish explains.
“Fishing shacks evolved into primitive bungalows where their families would stay in the summer, and the workers would ‘commute’ back to the farmlands,” he says. “The practice persisted through the mid-20th century.”
As urban industrial centers grew throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, the privileged elite retreated to their summer homes on the coast or in the mountains to escape the stifling heat.
By the 1920s, the middle- and working-classes also had opportunities to spend some time away from the crowds and stench of cities, staying in—and in some cases, building and owning—small cabins, bungalows, and A-frames.
Once automobiles were mass produced and widely available, they became the center of a new type of affordable tourism, which included car camping, motor courts and lodges, and, eventually, air conditioned motels.
Hand-held fans have been around for thousands of years, and whether they’re made from imported silk or an old newspaper, can be used to generate a cool breeze and shoo away flies and other pesky winged insects.
Folding fans have played a role in fashion, socializing and a variety of religious and cultural rituals, and, through most of the 19th century, were a status symbol for those of means.
That changed in the late 1800s with the mass-production of paper folding and paddle fans, which were often used to advertise commercial goods and services, as well as political candidates and causes, and given away for free.
Before electricity, cooking and baking required lighting and maintaining a fire in a hearth or a wood- or coal-burning stove. “Because the fire had to be constantly burning in the oven, many houses had a small separate building near the house called a ‘summer kitchen,” MacNish explains. “This helped keep the house cool and reduced the risk of fire.”
Another common strategy for cooking without heating the entire house was to prepare the foods for the day either early in the morning, or the night before, after sundown.
When it was too unbearably hot to be cooped up inside, people relocated to a variety of outdoor living spaces. “Porches were almost universally part of the design of the house in the 19th century, not just for socialization but to provide a cool place to relax and shield the downstairs room from the hot sun,” says MacNish. “Wrap-around porches would often terminate with a door at the dining room, enabling families to move the table to the porch and enjoy dinner outside in the summer months.”
In the early summer of 1914—his second serving as president—Woodrow Wilson moved his office from inside the White House to a tent at the end of the Rose Garden, complete with electric lights and a telephone. Wilson’s presidential predecessor, William Howard Taft, took a different approach, spending his nights outdoors in a “sleeping porch,” which was technically a standalone screened-in room constructed on the roof of the White House.
Typically, sleeping porches were “small second-story porches off the bedroom, or at least the main bedroom,” MacNish explains, noting that while they were more common in the south, they can be found in some northern homes as well. In some cases, sleeping porches weren’t part of the original construction of a house, but were subsequently added onto a second-floor bedroom, often to accommodate a member of the household living with tuberculosis, or another disease thought to be cured by fresh air.
People crammed into apartments in crowded cities had to get creative to cool off. “Some of the folks who lived in tenements slept out on the fire escape during the summer,” says David Favaloro, senior director of curatorial affairs at the Tenement Museum in New York City. “If you look at city police court records from summers in the early 20th century, a lot of people were fined because housing inspectors caught them blocking their fire escapes with mattresses.”
Glass was expensive in America’s early years, so those constructing homes on a budget often kept the number and size of windows to a minimum. Eventually, glass-making methods improved, prices came down, and people began installing windows as a way to keep their homes cool.
“When you didn’t have air conditioning, the breeze was the key,” says John H. Cluver, partner and director of preservation at Voith & Mactavish Architects LLP. “While windows today are seen primarily as something to look through, before air conditioning was invented they were a critical tool for reducing the heat in the house.”
The double-hung window was designed for this purpose, and took advantage of heat’s tendency to rise, Cluver explains. “By raising the bottom sash and lowering the top sash, you can stimulate a small air current to push built-up indoor heat out the top of the window,” he says. “The taller the window, the more air flow you could create, which is one reason you see taller windows in the later part of the 19th century.”
According to MacNish, people even considered a house's orientation on the land in order to take advantage of prevailing cross breezes, and protect from fierce north winter winds. In warmer regions, homes were built so that their windows and doors would align from one side of the house to the other, allowing a cross-breeze to pass through and cool the space, Cluver says.
“If the window was in the sun or if it was raining, louvered shutters—either on the inside or the outside—could be closed to block the sun or rain, while still allowing the air to flow,” he explains. “And lockable, louvered shutters would allow the cooler night air to flow in, while keeping potential intruders out.”
There were other ways of controlling the amount of sunlight that was able to enter a room. “Plantings around houses also keep homes cooler and shaded,” says Michael Murphy, an architect and the co-founder of MASS Design Group, a global, nonprofit architecture firm with offices in 20 countries across the globe. Installing retractable canvas awnings can achieve a similar cooling effect, MacNish notes.
Some houses were able to take the benefits of ventilation to another level—literally, says Cluver. “An open, central stair hall, especially one capped with a belvedere or cupola with operable windows, could use the chimney effect to great benefit, effectively creating an early form of the whole house fan,” he explains. Those who could afford to do so found other ways to make indoor spaces feel airy. “Ceilings got higher, with a ten-foot ceiling becoming the norm,” MacNish says. “Not only did this make the rooms look grander, but it kept them cooler.”
Others made more affordable modifications, like installing transom windows above interior doorways, bringing fresh air to areas that wouldn’t get it otherwise. Interior windows and air shafts retroactively added to older tenement buildings in New York City had a similar effect, although Favaloro says they were “really a response to complying with the spirit of housing laws, in particular, the 1901 Tenement House Act.”
While the additional airflow helped to cool the close quarters, Favaloro notes that “the housing reformers who advocated for these laws did so, in large part, to improve public health.”
A lot of what we know about how people stayed cool in their homes before air conditioning comes from vernacular architecture—or homes and buildings specific to a particular geographical region, typically constructed using locally available materials, and designed to accommodate the area’s climate and customs.
For example, homes in the Garden District of New Orleans demonstrate how ventilation was maximized in warm, wet climates, Murphy says. “Large triple-hung windows move hot air out and bring cooler air in,” he notes. “The large shaded porches [reduce] heat gain. Cross-ventilation in rooms maximizes air movement and passive cooling; ceiling fans help move air.”
Similarly, homes in the French Quarter also have indoor courtyards and rooms facing those courtyards with verandas, which Murphy says help create a chimney effect that moves hot air through and out of the complex.
Though hand fans offered some relief from the heat, they still required the user to expend energy to cool themselves, prompting the invention of alternatives, like the chair fan. In 1786, John Cram, a musical instrument maker from Philadelphia, created an apparatus that attached to a chair, and consisted of a foot pedal that powered a fan suspended on top of the chair.
The following year, George Washington purchased one for his Mount Vernon study, while back in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin invented his own version: a rocking chair modified with a foot pedal that operates a palmetto leaf fan. By the 19th century, the design shifted to rocking-chair-powered fans, including models patented in 1847 and 1896.
Although Schuyler Wheeler created what is considered the first electric fan in 1886, by 1925, only about half of American homes had electricity. But that didn’t mean those not yet on the grid had to make do with manual methods of staying cool.
In the 1910s, E. Paillard & Co., Ltd. produced a wind-up table fan, which could run for about 30 minutes when fully wound. Around the same time, the Lake Breeze Motor Company manufactured table fans powered by kerosene, alcohol and gas.
Ceiling fans also predate electricity, starting in 1886 with the Hunter Fan Company’s water-powered belt-driven models. A year later, Philip H. Diehl, an engineer at the Singer Manufacturing Company, attached propeller blades to an electric sewing-machine motor, and mounted it on the ceiling. Ceiling fans were first installed in factories, followed by retailers, hotels, and restaurants, eventually becoming common in homes.
Evaporative coolers have existed in some form since at least 2000 B.C. Also known as “swamp coolers,” they can help reduce the indoor temperature in dry climates by facilitating the passage of air over or through a wet piece of fabric. They can range from more primitive versions, like hanging dampened drapes or bedsheets over open windows, to modern versions that rely on a fan to move the air, instead of an open door or window.
In place of damp material, some people used ice when it became commercially available. “On sweltering days, you could run a fan over a block of ice and get a similar effect to air conditioning,” MacNish explains. This was the method U.S. Navy engineers used to keep James A. Garfield cool during the 80 days he spent in his White House sickroom before dying from a gunshot wound on September 19, 1881.
Before air conditioning, theaters—which were typically packed with seats, but lacking windows—could get oppressively hot in the summer. Though there had been attempts to cool these cavernous spaces, including Carnegie Hall, with the ice block method, the technique wasn’t effective enough to justify the cost of massive quantities of ice.
That changed in 1922, when the Carrier Engineering Corporation installed modern air conditioning systems in the Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles, followed by the Rivoli Theater in New York City’s Times Square, and then theaters across the country. To complement their theaters’ new climate-controlled comfort, movie studios began releasing films with wide appeal as temperatures started to rise each year, and the summer blockbuster was born.
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By: Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D., is a bioethicist and journalist, as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic.
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