Salvatore Basile’s fascinating history of air conditioning, Cool, examines the technology and its penetration into American life. He highlights the role of vaudeville and movie theaters in extending the realm of cool.
But he is also interested in the reaction to the new technology. And the reaction was surprisingly mixed. Even during sweltering summers when people died of heat exposure, some were resistant to air conditioning.
Why? Basile blames part of it on moral scruples: “for a number of Puritanical souls, air conditioning was unnatural. It even looked strange, with machinery that often made it conspicuous. New buildings were crowned not with elegant spires but with cooling towers. Older buildings, even some of the most architecturally notable, were disfigured by rows of hastily-plopped-in window units.”
Intellectuals were smugly dismissive, perhaps because intellectuals rarely do anything to break a sweat anyway: “People who really despised mechanical cooling could point to the title of Henry Miller’s 1945 harangue on the soulless mechanized commercialism of America, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare—inaccurately; other than its title, the book never did get around to discussing the subject of air conditioning. (And Marcia Ackermann pointed out that, once Miller’s writings took off, he moved to a large California house that ‘almost certainly’ had air conditioning.) Nevertheless, Miller’s bad-boy intellectualism was shared by The New Yorker, which throughout its history seemed to have viewed air conditioning with amused disdain.”
Frank Lloyd Wright did an about face. He had “spent decades claiming that he had started the whole thing with his completely sealed and air-conditioned Larkin Building,” but then in his 1954 The Natural House he argued “To me air conditioning is a dangerous circumstance. The extreme changes in temperature that tear down a building also tear down the human body. . . . I can sit in my shirt sleeves at eighty degrees, or seventy-five, and be cool; then go outside to 118 degrees, take a guarded breath or two around and soon get accustomed to the change.” He told the New Yorker in an interview that “this air-conditioning has killed more good men than can be accounted for.”
Fortunately, the “general public ignored” the critics.