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Life Before Air Conditioning

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How in the world did people deal with the summer heat without air conditioning? Lots of ways, both time-tested and experimental.

Cooling homes was not the intended purpose when Willis Carrier invented modern air conditioning in 1902. The earliest air conditioners were for industrial quality control; the comfort of the workers was incidental. However, artificial climate control made steel and glass skyscrapers practical. Home air conditioning became widely available after World War II and ushered in the age of suburban tract housing. It also spelled the demise of some old-fashioned architectual details and social customs.

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A look at some of these architectual details, after the jump.

The oldest method of home climate control is living underground. Our cave-dwelling ancestors enjoyed temperatures in the 50s both summer and winter. This dugout house found at Shorpy was both inexpensive to build (but labor-intensive) and cool in the summer. Although no one wants to live in a pit, this method of cooling survived in the use of deep spacious basements, split-level homes, and houses built into a hillside. The lower levels stayed much cooler than modern homes.

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Underground level climate control is still in use, as we see in the extensive underground workplace called Subtropolis. More new buildings are constructed underground, or partially buried, every year.

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The effect of cave living was somewhat duplicated by the use of thick stone, adobe, or traditional brick outer walls. Air conditioning allows the use of cheaper and lighter materials. Thirty years ago, it was unheard of to cancel school due to heat. My school had no air conditioning, but it had thick brick walls, high ceilings, transoms, ceiling fans, and if all else failed, plenty of trees outside to hold classes under. We also walked six miles, uphill both ways. That building is still there, although the school has moved to a new climate-controlled facility. The school pictured is in Hendricks, Minnesota, but resembles the school I attended.

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Rooms with high ceilings benefit from the tendency of heat to rise. If heat gathers in the top third of a room, then a ten-foot ceiling will make a room relatively cooler for most people. Ceiling fans accentuate the effect by pulling air up during the summer, and pushing warmer air down in the winter. Older homes with more than one story took advantage of the stack effect, as open stairwells vented heat upstairs. That's why upper floors were only used at night, with the windows open. Some houses even had a tower or turret to act as a windcatcher or heat exhaust vent.

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Shade trees planted on the east and west sides of a home block the summer sun before it warms the home exterior. They also cool down breezes slightly before they enter the porch area. Awnings and window overhangs provide the same effect, and let more sunshine in during the winter, when the sun hangs lower.

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The front porch was an alternative to hot homes, and became a means of social interaction. If you weren't sitting on your own porch in the cool of the evening, you could stroll the neighborhood and visit other familes sitting on their porch.

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On hot nights, the porch was a cooler place to sleep. Apartment dwellers would sleep on the fire escape when it was unbearably hot indoors. The widespread use of the automobile, television, and air conditioning killed the front porch as a social institution.

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People had other personal methods for keeping cool, such as hanging wet laundry in doorways, sleeping in refrigerated sheets, and keeping one's underwear in the freezer.

Years ago when air conditioning wasn't universal, we were sometimes miserably hot. But "miserable" is a relative term. We didn't know what we were missing, and we were used to it. We were never as miserable as someone in a small modern home built for artificial climate control when the air conditioner fails!

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Food
Thanks to a Wet Winter, New Zealand Faces a Potential Potato Chip Shortage
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New Zealand has plenty of unique and tasty snacks, but kiwis also love potato chips. The universal comfort food is in danger Down Under, however, as an unusually wet winter has devastated the island country’s tuber crops, according to BBC News.

Twenty percent of New Zealand’s annual potato crop was wiped out from a series of major storms and floods that ravaged the nation’s North and South Islands, The Guardian reports. In some regions, up to 30 percent of potato crops were affected, with the varieties used to make chips bearing the brunt of the damage.

Potato prices spiked as farmers struggled, but the crisis—now dubbed “chipocalypse” by media outlets—didn't really make the mainstream news until supermarket chain Pak’nSave posted announcements in potato chip aisles that warned customers of a salty snack shortage until the New Year.

Pak’nSave has since rescinded this explanation, claiming instead that they made an ordering error. However, other supermarket chains say they’re working directly with potato chip suppliers to avoid any potential shortfalls, and are aware that supplies might be limited for the foreseeable future.

New Zealand’s potato farming crisis extends far beyond the snack bars at rugby matches and vending machines. Last year’s potato crops either rotted or remained un-harvested, and the ground is still too wet to plant new ones. This hurts New Zealand’s economy: The nation is the world’s ninth-largest exporter of potatoes.

Plus, potatoes “are a food staple, and this is becoming a food security issue as the effects of climate change take their toll on our potato crop,” says Chris Claridge, the chief executive of industry group Potatoes New Zealand, according to The Guardian.

In the meantime, New Zealanders are preparing to hunker down for a few long months of potential potato peril—and according to some social media users, kale chips are not a suitable alternative. “Chipocalypse” indeed.

[h/t BBC News]

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Weird
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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