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