Uncool July 29, 2014

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.”

A 1959 article in the New Yorker thought the city had been better before it got cool: “How useless now to argue that in the old days electric fans blowing across cakes of ice kept saloons at a temperature that was one of the pleasures of summer instead of a simulacrum of winter. . . . The dodges for coping with the heat that New Yorkers learned in three centuries of summers have become superfluous, and in some cases hazardous. The long drink is an irrelevancy; if you arrive in a bar, after a few steps in the street, longing for a Tom Collins, half a minute of the temperature inside influences you to change to a hot toddy. Cold foods lose their charm as quickly; at the first blast of frozen air, the customer decides to stick to steak. . . . It was a fine city until they started improving it.”

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. 

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