Pre-Air Conditioning

What did you do in pre-air conditioning days to cool off?

Air-conditioning has reversed the polarity of summer: it has us fleeing inside during hot weather, while we used to flee outside, which might have been more fun, and was certainly more social. Arthur Miller’s “Before Air-Conditioning,” from June 22, 1998—probably the definitive New Yorker essay on this subject—describes the way New Yorkers would flock together out-of-doors. During his childhood, Miller writes, in the twenties, “There were still elevated trains … along Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues, and many of the cars were wooden, with windows that opened. … [D]esperate people, unable to endure their apartments, would simply pay a nickel and ride around aimlessly for a couple of hours to cool off.” At night, Central Park was full of “hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake.” It was still hot in the park, and it was crowded, but the openness of the space made the heat easier to bear. In “Summer Night,” from September 7, 1935, Morris Markey explained one reason the Park felt cooler: “the lighted towers which rim the Park seemed to thrust their peaks into cool atmospheres.”

Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Holly

    I am 44, have only had air conditioning for less than a year. The air is nice, really nice; it makes canning vegetables bearable. :)

  • Kullervo

    People are able to acclimatize to the seasonal heat significantly more than they are when they duck from AC-environment to AC-environment.

  • scotmcknight

    The best cooling strategy we had was to put a fan in one window and blow it full blast out the window in order to draw cooler outside air in another window and it also created a draft.

  • macd50

    I enjoy AC. It seems the older I get it the less tolerant I am of hight temps and high humidity. Give me three minutes outside and my deoderant quickly goes from sure to undecided.

    Even though we have central air we normally don’t want it to get too warm in the kitchen while preparing dinner. Solution: I stand outside in 90+ temps cooking over a barbacue that’s kicking out a stiffling 450 degree heat! Makes perfect sense to me.

  • Jennifer Ellen

    I don’t have AC at home or in my car currently. In the evenings, openning all the windows is great. During the day, I tend to head outside to the shade to read with a good book (wish I had a spot for a hammock!), or if it’s just too humid, to a nice local non-Starbucks coffee shop. This is what porches and sweet tea are for down South. :)

  • Barb

    as a child I used to lay on the cement floor to feel the cold–this was Central Valley CA. Also we played outside until it was really dark.

  • Treva H Whichard

    Growing up in Frederick, Maryland (was born in 1946), we kids used to catch lightening bugs at night, while our parents sat on lawn chairs. They would be sipping iced tea and visiting with neighbors by talking ‘through’ their hedges – couldn’t see anyone, but hear each other. We would also have a baseball game on high volume on the radio in the kitchen so could hear the game while sitting outside. We were Baltimore Orioles fans. Boog Powell would hit a homerun and the commentator would say “Ain’t the beer cold.”

  • Susan_G1

    The coolest place in the city, I’d bet, was the very park-like and beautiful cemetery, which was two blocks from our house. Bought and designed by PT Barnum, it was thick with trees, a pond, and cool marble statuary, not at all like the typical cemetery. Kids spent time there, and we weren’t shooed off.

    On the hotter days, we walked the few miles it took to go to the beach, where the water cooled us off (no public pool). I don’t remember the heat being such a problem (shade, lemonade, soda, iced tea, etc) until night time, trying to sleep, and then it was fans. Fans in every bedroom.

  • http://proecclesia.net/ Garet Robinson

    Not to brag, but I can honestly say I’ve never not had air conditioning as part of my life. Though perhaps not as absolute as it is nowadays, our malls in Houston are usually set at 65° during the summer, I never had to escape heat outside of at least one air conditioned room.

    Great links by the way. Such an interesting topic.

  • attytjj466

    I recall church being very hot during the summer when I was a kid. Long sleeve shirt with buttoned up collar was bad enough, but then the hot sanctuary with no breeze with a long boring sermon, those were miserable days in my child memory. Very thankful for cool air conditioned churches. But people did clear out of the building and gather and talk on the grass under the trees after the service. People don’t do that anymore.

  • Clay Knick

    Imagine “Rear Window” being made with air conditioning. It would not be the same movie. But I don’t want to live without the AC here in the south! I’ve had times in my life when we did not have it & I don’t ever want to go through that again.

  • Barb

    I’ve never lived where it was hot and humid–just hot and dry-ish. When I used to have to travel to Florida or Georgia for work I would have to pack my sweat suit to be warm inside the air-conditioned rooms.

  • DMH

    I grew up in Michigan and spent the summers on a very cold spring fed lake… unbeatable. Later we moved to Florida and were able to live for a year in a house on the beach… a very close second to the lake. Living there however was a special situation and one we could not afford so we moved into a house without AC. It was an old Florida house built pre-AC. It had a large 5ft. attic fan and was up on blocks for air flow. When we kicked the fan on it was like living in a wind tunnel, which was great to beat the summer heat. We finally moved into a house which was built for AC, which was great, except when a hurricane came through and knocked the power out for two weeks. Then, like the artical mentioned, everybody came outside. This was actually great. We got to know our neighbors. There was a real sense of community- cooking together and sharing food, water, and bug spray. But as soon as the convoy of power company trucks rolled into the neighborhood and turned the power back on people were back into their houses within seconds. All except us, who just stood there feeling disappointed.

  • scotmcknight

    Did you have those little pew fans? We did.

  • carrdexter3

    I could barely remember that we use to go out and have bible study under the shade of the trees and it is very relaxing makes you feel more refresh while listening to the God’s word.

  • attytjj466

    No. First time i remember seeing those was at a black church I went to with my father. But of course we had bulletins.

  • Eleanor

    Ernie Harwell, how we miss you.

    The house I grew up in, and where my mom continues to live, STILL does not have AC. She refuses. We would spend summer evenings on the porch with the Phillies games on (the awful Phillies teams of the 60s and 70s) and kibbitz with several sets of our neighbors across the street who were doing the same.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    When my wife and I added a high-efficiency furnace to our Michigan home we intentionally did not add A/C. Living in Iowa with A/C taught us how addicting it can be.

    When I was a kid, we just stayed outside most of the time. Of course we had a creek and 40 acres of woods behind our house and 7 ball diamonds at the end of the street. That was enough to keep any kid busy.
    But my parents grew up in a factory town — Sheboygan Wisconsin –. She tells me that about 4 days per summer it would get so hot — and no one had A/C that the factory supervisors and office people could not stand it. So about 4 days per summer the whistle blew and everyone went home and then to the beach, like snow-days.
    My wife doesn’t get that. A lab tech, she works in the air conditioned lab while most of the workers are in non-A/C environment. Not a strictly front-office dweller, she gets to move back and forth between A/C and not, and suffer the consequences.


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