How did people cope during heat waves before the invention of air conditioning?

Before the advent of air conditioning, people employed a variety of ingenious methods to stay cool during heat waves. These methods were a blend of architectural design, clothing choices, daily activity scheduling, and the use of natural elements like water and vegetation.

And unbeknownst to many, research has shown that the air conditioning actually played a role in starting our American tradition of going to the movies in summer, which in turn paved the way for summer blockbusters.

Without a shred of doubt, the widespread adoption of air conditioning has profoundly impacted American lifestyle and settlement patterns, making regions once considered too hot for comfortable living (i.e. Sun Belt areas like New Mexico, Texas and California), attractive places to reside.

In the article below, World History Edu illustrates humanity’s adaptability to its environment by delving into some of these major historical practices across different cultures and eras.

Architectural Design and Urban Planning

Historically, architecture played a pivotal role in cooling. In ancient Egypt, homes were constructed with thick, mud-brick walls that absorbed heat during the day and released it at night. Windows were small, high up, and faced away from the sun, minimizing the amount of sunlight that entered rooms.

Similarly, in ancient Rome, wealthy citizens utilized aqueduct water to circulate through the walls of their homes, a method known as “cooling the walls,” to reduce indoor temperatures.

The traditional architecture of the Middle East and North Africa, particularly the riad gardens of Morocco and the wind towers (badgirs) of Iran, are prime examples of pre-modern cooling techniques. Riads, with their central courtyards and gardens, provided a cool retreat within the home, utilizing shade and evaporative cooling from fountains.

Wind towers, on the other hand, were designed to catch and direct breezes into buildings, significantly lowering the temperature inside.

In hot and arid regions of North America, Native Americans built partially underground earth homes that stayed cool in summer and warm in winter.

In regions like ancient Persia, buildings often incorporated wind catchers (badgirs), tall structures designed to catch and direct cool breezes into the interior of buildings. Image: Ruins of the ancient Persian city of Persepolis.

Traditional buildings often featured thick walls made from materials like stone, adobe, or thick brick, which have high thermal mass, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it slowly at night. High ceilings allowed hot air to rise, keeping the living spaces cooler at ground level.

Many traditional houses, especially in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions, were built around central courtyards. These courtyards often featured gardens and water features, such as fountains or pools, which helped to cool the air. The courtyards served as a private outdoor living space, shaded from the sun.

In warmer climates, houses frequently featured verandas or porches. These shaded areas provided a cool, outdoor living space protected from the direct sun. They also shielded the building’s walls, reducing heat absorption.

In the southern United States, antebellum homes featured high ceilings, large, shaded verandas, and windows positioned to create cross-ventilation, drawing cooler air through the house. Image: A picture of Barrington Hall, which is indeed a classic example of an antebellum home – it is located in Roswell, Georgia, US.

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Natural Cooling and Water Use

Planting trees and maintaining gardens around living spaces provided shade and cooled the air through a process known as transpiration. Dense foliage could significantly reduce ambient temperatures in and around living spaces.

Fountains, pools, and water channels were not only aesthetically pleasing but also cooled the surrounding air through evaporation. This principle was widely utilized in Islamic architecture, where water played a crucial role in cooling gardens and interior courtyards.

Behavioral Adaptations and Community Solutions

In many hot countries, the practice of siesta involves taking a rest or nap during the hottest part of the day. This cultural adaptation reduced exposure to heat and aligned human activity with the cooler parts of the day.

Clothing has always been adapted to cope with the heat. Light-colored, loose-fitting garments made from natural fibers like cotton and linen were favored in many cultures for their breathability and ability to reflect sunlight. In ancient Egypt, for example, people wore linen clothes and shaved their heads, wearing wigs instead, to stay cool.

In some cultures, community spaces like public baths or naturally cool underground areas provided respite from the heat. These spaces were often designed to be cool retreats and served as social gathering spots during heat waves.

In some regions, people practiced seasonal migration to escape the heat. This could involve moving to cooler areas or higher elevations during the hottest months.

Environmental Management

Cities often had large public spaces with shaded canopies or were located near bodies of water, such as rivers or lakes, which provided natural cooling effects. The strategic placement of public squares with large trees or near water bodies helped cool the urban environment.

Use of hand-held fans and then ceiling fans

In the relentless pursuit of relief from the heat, innovations beyond the hand fan emerged, driven by the need for cooling without manual effort.

In 1786, John Cram of Philadelphia introduced a chair fan, a novel device combining a chair with a foot pedal-driven fan overhead. The concept captured the attention of notable figures like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, with the latter inventing a rocking chair version that utilized a foot pedal to operate a palmetto leaf fan.

As technology progressed into the 19th century, the design evolved into rocking-chair-powered fans, with patents appearing in 1847 and 1896. The advent of electric fans by Schuyler Wheeler in 1886 marked a significant leap, yet widespread electrical infrastructure lagged, with only about half of American homes electrified by 1925.

This gap spurred alternative solutions like wind-up and fuel-powered table fans in the 1910s and water-powered ceiling fans in 1886, before Philip H. Diehl’s electric ceiling fan innovation in 1887.

These developments paved the way for ceiling fans’ widespread use across various establishments, eventually making their way into residential settings, showcasing the inventive strides taken to achieve comfort in the pre-electrical era.

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How America moved from just 10% air conditioned homes to almost 90%

It’s been noted that about a century back, U.S. hospitals and factories pioneered air conditioning installation, but initial attempts at residential units in the 1930s faltered due to their size and expense.

The game changed in the late 1940s with the launch of accessible window air conditioners. This made cooled air a household possibility.

And by the early 1960s, air conditioning graced 12% of American homes. By the 1980s, this figure surged to 55%, marking a significant shift in domestic comfort and lifestyle.

Today, the research shows more than 87% of U.S. homes and public spaces are air conditioned.

Did you know…?

  • Throughout history, humans have devised innovative ways to combat summer heat. Ancient Romans, for instance, cooled their homes by circulating cool water through walls, while the Chinese developed large, hand-powered room fans.
  • Efforts to stay cool have ranged from importing massive quantities of snow to freezing underwear for a brief respite from the heat.
  • Not just the affluent moved to cooler places in summer; early Long Island farmers also shifted, spending summers fishing shoreside, just miles from their inland homes.
  • It’s also been noted that as mass-produced cars increased there was an increase in affordable tourism trends like car camping, motor courts, and lodges. This ultimately led to the rise of air-conditioned motels.

How President James A. Garfield’s doctor used a cooling device to reduce his discomfort

The 19th century saw significant advancements in cooling technologies. In the 1840s, Dr. John Gorrie from Florida invented a machine that cooled hospital rooms using ice.

This concept was further applied in 1881 when doctors attempting to alleviate U.S. President James A. Garfield‘s discomfort in his sickroom managed to lower the temperature by 20 degrees using a cumbersome apparatus that blew air through ice water-soaked sheets, consuming over 450,000 pounds of ice in just two months.

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When ice became commercially available, people placed it in front of fans for cooling, a method akin to air conditioning. This technique was used by U.S. Navy engineers to comfort President Garfield in his final days in 1881. Image: A photo of Garfield during the early 1880s.

How did electricity advance the development of A/C?

The introduction of electricity marked a turning point in the development of cooling devices, making electric ceiling fans and oscillating fans household items.

However, a transformative breakthrough came in 1902 when engineer Willis Carrier invented a machine that controlled air humidity for a printing plant, solving the problem of ink melting off pages during hot summers. This invention laid the groundwork for modern air conditioning systems, which were initially so large and expensive that their use was confined to factories.

When did air conditioning become accessible to the public in the U.S.?

Air conditioning first became accessible to the general public in movie theaters, where it was marketed as “man-made weather.” This innovation started the American tradition of flocking to cinemas on hot summer days, indirectly giving rise to the summer blockbuster phenomenon.

Following movie theaters, significant buildings like the White House and the U.S. Capitol were equipped with air conditioning, fundamentally changing the legislative calendar by allowing Congress to work year-round.

FAQs

The evolution from ancient cooling methods to the near-universal acceptance of air conditioning underscores humanity’s enduring quest for comfort in the face of nature’s extremes.

Below are some frequently asked questions about how people beat the heat before A/C:

How did ancient architecture help in cooling?

Ancient architecture utilized high ceilings for hot air to rise, thick walls to insulate against heat, courtyards and water features to cool through evaporation, and strategically placed windows and vents for natural airflow.

What role did clothing play in heat management?

Clothing made from natural, breathable fabrics in light colors was preferred to reflect sunlight and allow air circulation, helping to keep the body cool.

Were there any traditional cooling devices used before air conditioning?

Yes, people used hand fans, water-soaked screens in windows for evaporative cooling, and ice or snow stored from winter in underground cellars to cool rooms.

How did people sleep during hot nights?

People often slept on rooftops, porches, or in courtyards to escape the heat trapped inside houses. They also used thin, breathable bedding and slept in areas where they could catch a breeze.

How did summer kitchen help keep the house cool?

Before the advent of electricity, cooking meant keeping a fire alive in hearths or wood/coal stoves. To avoid overheating homes, many had ‘summer kitchens’ nearby for cooking in warmer months.

Another tactic involved preparing meals early in the morning or late at night, after sundown, to prevent raising the house’s temperature during the day, demonstrating early strategies to mitigate heat and maintain comfort.

How did diet play a part in staying cool?

Diet adjustments included eating lighter meals, more fruits and vegetables, and avoiding heavy, hot foods. Cold beverages and ice creams became popular ways to cool down internally.

What were some natural elements used to beat the heat?

Planting trees and vines for shade, creating water features like fountains and ponds for evaporative cooling, and situating homes to catch prevailing winds were common natural methods.

How were sleeping porches used?

In the era before widespread air conditioning, escaping the indoor heat led people to innovate with outdoor living spaces.

Nineteenth-century homes often featured porches as essential elements, serving both social and practical purposes by offering a cooler area for relaxation and protecting interior spaces from the sun’s intensity.

Families would dine on wrap-around porches, directly connecting to their dining rooms, to enjoy the cooler evening air.

Notably, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 adapted to the summer heat by moving his office to a tented setup in the Rose Garden, equipped with modern conveniences like electric lights and a telephone.

Similarly, President WilliamHoward Taft opted for a “sleeping porch” for nighttime relief. These screened-in porches, often added to accommodate health beliefs or to provide a cooler sleeping environment, were especially popular in the South but found in the North as well.

Urban residents, particularly those in crowded tenements, resorted to sleeping on fire escapes, a practice that, despite its practicality, sometimes led to fines from housing inspectors for obstructing these emergency exits.

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What are some of the major technological innovations people used to beat the heat waves?

Before mechanical refrigeration, ice was harvested during the winter and stored in ice houses insulated with straw or sawdust. This ice was used to cool buildings and preserve food during the summer months.

In some regions, people used early forms of evaporative cooling, hanging wet clothes in doorways or windows or using earthenware pots that cooled water through evaporation.

Research shows close to 90% of U.S. homes and public spaces are now air conditioned. It’s tough to envision enduring sweltering days without it, yet this comfort is a modern luxury.

How windows were used in a creative way to reduce the heat in homes?

In America’s formative years, the high cost of glass limited window numbers and sizes in budget-conscious home construction.

As glass-making technology advanced, leading to reduced costs, windows became a popular means of cooling homes. The invention of the double-hung window exemplified this shift, cleverly designed to enhance ventilation by allowing hot air to escape through the top while cooler air entered from the bottom. The utility of these windows increased with their height, promoting better airflow, a feature increasingly common by the late 19th century.

Home orientation also became a consideration, aiming to harness prevailing breezes for natural cooling and shield against cold northern winds.

Additionally, louvered shutters offered protection against sun and rain while facilitating air circulation. Beyond structural adaptations, strategic plantings and retractable canvas awnings were employed to shade homes, further mitigating heat without compromising security or ventilation.

How did social and cultural practices adapt to high temperatures?

In many cultures, siestas or midday rests became a norm to avoid the hottest part of the day. Outdoor and evening social activities were preferred during hot weather.

Did any cultures develop unique methods of cooling?

Yes, for example, the ancient Egyptians hung wet reeds in windows, Persians used wind towers to catch breezes, and Romans circulated aqueduct water through walls to cool buildings.

How has the transition to air conditioning changed societal habits regarding heat?

The widespread adoption of air conditioning has shifted building designs away from natural cooling strategies, changed patterns of human activity (including a decrease in traditional midday rests), and increased indoor lifestyle tendencies, altering how societies interact with natural and built environments in terms of heat management.

As we face increasing challenges from climate change and the need for sustainable living practices, revisiting and learning from these traditional cooling strategies can provide valuable insights for designing resilient and energy-efficient cooling systems for the future.

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