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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August 20, 2007 - 3:18am
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