In a time when 88 percent of U.S. households and most public buildings rely on air conditioning, it’s challenging to picture a world without the cool oasis provided by artificially cooled spaces on sweltering days. However, the widespread use of air conditioning is a relatively recent development.
Around a century ago, the advent of air conditioning saw early adoption in U.S. hospitals and factories. Although manufacturers attempted to create residential air conditioning units during the 1930s, these devices remained prohibitively bulky and costly for the average household. The game-changer came in 1947 with the introduction of affordable window air conditioners, making it accessible to more Americans. By 1960, approximately 12 percent of U.S. households enjoyed the comfort of air conditioning. Just two decades later, that number surged to 55 percent.
While air conditioning may seem ubiquitous today, the technology’s evolution was a gradual process. “Up until the advent of air conditioning, the concept of keeping cool was more evolutionary than revolutionary,” explains Mark MacNish, Executive Director of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council.
Here are 11 historical practices that people used to beat the heat before the widespread adoption of air conditioning:
1. Clothing Adaptations: In earlier times, people made a clear distinction between “summer” and “winter” clothes due to the absence of air conditioning. During the warmer months, residents would transition from heavy woolen garments to lightweight linen or cotton attire. In some cases, individuals, particularly those working in kitchens, had to wear woolen dresses for safety reasons, even in the heat. Wealthier colonial women would sometimes seek relief from the heat by retiring to cool cellars while wearing minimal clothing.
2. Relocating to Cooler Areas: In the past, both wealthy and working-class families would escape the heat by relocating during the hot summer months. Inland farmers, for instance, would spend the summer fishing near their homes, transforming fishing shacks into makeshift bungalows. The practice of relocating to cooler coastal or mountainous areas was common, especially as urban industrial centers expanded during the 19th and 20th centuries.
3. Hand-Held Fans: Hand-held fans, in various forms, have been used for thousands of years to create a cool breeze and deter flying insects. Folding fans, often made from paper, played significant roles in fashion, social gatherings, and cultural rituals. In the late 1800s, mass production of paper folding and paddle fans began, used for advertising and promotion, and often distributed for free.
4. Minimizing Cooking Heat: Before electricity, cooking and baking necessitated the use of open flames in a hearth or a wood- or coal-burning stove. To keep homes cooler and reduce the risk of fire, some houses had a “summer kitchen” where cooking was done separately. Another approach was to prepare meals early in the morning or during the cooler evening hours.
5. Utilizing Outdoor Living Spaces: During sweltering days, people took refuge in various outdoor living spaces. Porches were a common architectural feature, designed not only for socialization but also to provide cool places for relaxation and protect interior rooms from direct sunlight. Some homes had wrap-around porches that allowed dining outside during the summer. Sleeping porches, often screened-in rooms or balconies, offered a cool, fresh-air alternative for sleeping during hot nights.
6. Windows for Cross-Ventilation: Homes were designed with the purpose of maximizing airflow, as the breeze was key to staying cool. Buildings were oriented to catch prevailing cross breezes while shielding against harsh winter winds. Windows and doors were strategically placed to enable cross-ventilation. Louvered shutters allowed airflow while maintaining privacy and security. Plantings and retractable canvas awnings helped control the amount of sunlight entering a room.
7. Architectural Features for Natural Cooling: Houses were designed to suit the climate, incorporating architectural features that optimized airflow. An open central stair hall with an operable cupola on top facilitated the chimney effect, providing whole-house ventilation. Higher ceilings became the norm to keep rooms cooler.
8. Evaporative Cooling: Evaporative coolers, also known as “swamp coolers,” have existed for thousands of years. They rely on passing air over or through a wet surface to reduce indoor temperatures, particularly effective in dry climates. People also used ice blocks or placed fans over ice for cooling.
9. Electric Fans: Electric fans were introduced in the late 19th century. By 1925, about half of American homes had electricity. In the early 20th century, wind-up table fans and kerosene, alcohol, and gas-powered table fans provided relief for those without electrical service. Ceiling fans predate electricity and started with water-powered belt-driven models in 1886.
10. Ventilated Clothing: Prior to air conditioning, individuals relied on ventilated clothing to stay cool. In the southern United States, the development of clothing with breathable fabrics and lightweight designs became common.
11. Cooled Movie Theaters: Theaters, lacking windows and usually packed with seats, could become uncomfortably hot in the summer. In 1922, air conditioning systems were installed in theaters, with the first ones appearing in the Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles and the Rivoli Theater in New York City’s Times Square. Movie studios began releasing summer blockbusters, knowing that people would flock to theaters for the comfort of air conditioning.