Most of our generation grew up with the soft buzz of refrigerated air conditioners cooling our houses. All we had to worry about was remembering to change the filter and hope it didn't break down during a heat wave, and, of course, how high our electric bill will be this month.
As the dog days of summer approach, have you given any thought to how people survived the heat before there was such a thing as air conditioning?
I don't predate electricity, but I can remember when we relied on oscillating electric fans operated on 25 or 60 cycle electricity which would speed up and slow down instead of staying on an even keel. I lived in central Arizona where the temperature often reached over 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime. We had to cope with the heat.
I'm not at all sure our solutions to the heat problem back then were necessarily the best in the long run, but we made it through. In my circle of friends as a kid we all went barefooted and most boys went without shirts in summer time, which probably contributed to skin cancers in later life. We wore loose fitting, cotton clothing, and sometimes slept outdoors at night. As we got older, we slept in the house but kept all the windows open. The screens often had holes in them, which made it convenient for the mosquitoes.
The New Yorker (online) reports people in the big city used to flock to Central Park and sleep on the grass at night and others slept on their fire escape in their underwear.
Most houses in my youth had screened in porches where the youngsters slept at night in summer. The grownups used electric fans with all the windows open. Many houses had front porches where the family often gathered in the evening after the sun went down to share their day's experiences. Sometimes they would go for a walk and visit with neighbors who where sitting on their front porch.
But lets go back further in history. Back, to pre-modern ages. I suppose there have always been hand fans. These are still in use today. A book or a hat or anything which can stir the air is often substituted. I remember when there were three necessary thing on the back of a pew at church; a Bible, a song book and a crude hand fan.
The ancient Chinese made an art out of fan making. The Egyptians made huge fans out of ostrich feathers and their slaves waved them to keep the aristocrats cool. The peasants evidently had to tough it out.
The Roman emperor, Elagabulus (217 - 222) was said to have hauled many wagon loads of snow from the mountains and piled them up by his house to keep him cool in the summer. I wonder how long that pile of snow would last around here.
Mental_floss online, asks, "How in the world did people deal with the summer heat without air conditioning? He answers, "Lots of ways, both time-tested and experimental."
One way was to plant trees all around the house. These kept the houses shaded, thus cooling the exterior while cooling the breeze as it past through their leaves. Green lawns also absorb the heat, cooling the air.
Cooling homes was not the intended purpose when Willis Carrier invented modern air conditions 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 architectural details and social customs."
Some houses were built specifically to be self cooling. The windows and doors were set in a position to bring in the prevailing breezes. Few or no windows were placed on the east or west sides of the house. Ceilings were high because heat rises, and the upper room windows were positioned to let the hot air out.
My wife and I were privileged to spend most of a hot day in such a house in Hyderabad, India. It was called a bungalow and was built for visiting dignitaries from England. It sat on a hill outside of town, and although the temperature was approaching 110 degrees, it was quite comfortable inside the building.
Some think the oldest method of home climate control was living underground. Our cave-dwelling ancestors enjoyed temperatures in the 50s both summer and winter.
Dugout houses became popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were both inexpensive to build (but labor-intensive) and cool in the summer. Snakes and scorpions also liked these underground dwellings, and the sod on the roof tended to dry out and fall on the dining room table while they were eating.
The effects of this underground living is somewhat duplicated by the use of thick stone, adobe, or brick outer walls and high ceilings.
The elementary school this writer attended in the 1940s had no air conditioning system other than open windows and ceiling fans. It also had thick walls and high ceilings. I never knew of any school kids suffering a heat stroke even though the temperature often soared above 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring and fall.
Those who worked outside in the summer heat knew to drink lots of water and they took salt tablets to replace the salt lost through perspiration. (Now they say this is bad for you, but we did it, and our shirts would often be coated white with salt at the end of the day).
The acceptable dress for a laborer was jeans and T-shirts. I always wore white T-shirts to reflect the sun rays. Most wore cowboy style straw hats for shade. Several times a day, as I recall, we would pour water on our heads and let it soak our T-shirt and upper trousers.
When the temperature is over 110 degrees you don't worry so much about style as you do comfort. But the work went on.
Arizona was one of the first states to drop the business suit from their dress code for businessmen. They also refused to accept Daylight Savings Time. Instead, many people chose to go to work at 5:00 AM and get off at 2:00 PM during the summer, thus missing the hottest part of the day .
As we think back to our pioneer ancestors out here on the plains of Texas, they must have been awfully tough individuals. If you examine their Stetson hats preserved to our day, you will notice the sweatbands stained with sweat which almost covers the whole hat. They didn't get this way by hanging on a hat rack.
Most people of our day and age haven't had to battle the elements as they were. It is believed one becomes oriented to the hot weather and it doesn't bother you so much. We saw this in Arizona when visitors would suffer from the heat while the local people were enjoying a mild ninety something degree day.
We in America should be grateful we have means of climate control. Yes, it is expensive, but it is available. In many countries today the common people have no means of air conditioning their homes.
We learned while traveling in India these folks also have ways of combating the heat. They wear loose fitting light colored cotton clothing. Most of their houses were open. If they had doors they remained open in summer. Of course this let the chickens and dogs and lizards in, but this didn't seem to bother the people.
Our Mexican pioneers had ways of dealing with the heat. They wore really wide brimmed sombreros, and took a siesta during the hottest part of the day. Their homes were thick walled adobe with open windows and doors and a courtyard out front. The roofs were usually palapa (dried palm leaves) or red tile, (fired clay). These both deflect the heat and make it cooler inside.
I question the traditional picture of a vaquero leaning back on a saguaro cactus taking his siesta. Those cactus have sharp stickers and don't provide much shade. I've tried it.
A lady named Marye Audet wrote an article online, entitled, "Living Without Air Conditioning in Texas." She tells about her family of eight children's decision to live without air conditioning for the past five years in the Dallas area. Apparently it can be done. She claims to have found many benefits besides saving about $200 a month on electricity.
There have been many simple solutions offered for beating the heat, such as wiping the forehead, face and neck, and wrists with a damp washcloth, or my wife's favorite, taking several short showers with cool water. Swimming offers a good way to cool off. It is also suggested you drink lots of liquids, but not coffee or tea or beer or anything else with caffeine. These can dehydrate you and cause serious problems in very hot weather.
Mental_Floss says, "Years ago when air conditioning wasn't universal, we were sometimes miserably hot, but remember, "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!"
Since it is getting hot around here I thought you would want me to share with you what the hottest day ever recorded on this earth was. It was on July 10, 1913, in Death Valley at Furnace Creek, California. It was 134 degrees Fahrenheit. Doesn't this cheer you up?
An interesting sidelight to this report happened on January 8, of the same year, just six months before they recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded the temperature dropped to 5 degrees. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Death Valley.
Have a nice cool day!