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How Did We Survive the Summer Without AC?

Taking a look back at a time before most folks had in-home air conditioning


Each year at the beginning of summer, I share a meme on Facebook. It’s a photo of Willis Carrier, the man who invented air conditioning. I thank him at least a few times for his magnificent invention, especially on blazing hot days. I’m sure that without him, I would have to spend each moment of the summer lying in a tub full of ice.

Having grown up in the 1970s and ‘80s in Baltimore — one of the hottest, swampiest cities you can imagine in July and August — I don’t remember a time before air conditioning existed. We installed central air in our home when I was in middle school. But that’s only because my mom had a friend whose company could put in a whole system on the cheap. Before that, we used window units: one in the kitchen (and since we lived in a row home, the air would go from the kitchen throughout the living room on the first floor), one in my bedroom and one in my parents’ bedroom. The kitchen unit stayed on all day, and I had the job of running upstairs about an hour before bedtime to turn on the others.

But when we took showers, it was ungodly hot. Even cool showers didn’t give much relief — because once you stepped out of the shower, the bathroom was like a furnace.

During the summer, we spent lots of time outside. That meant to keep cool, we often had neighborhood-wide water balloon battles. Jym and Darren were our friends who had pools, so we cooled off at their places whenever we could. When my friend, Sandy, got some kind of sprinkler thing that would spin around and shoot water everywhere, we would don our bathing suits, hook it up to the hose in her backyard and welcome the ice-cold water.

Upon asking other folks how they would stay cool, I learned a lot of things. First, businesses with air conditioning got lots of foot traffic on especially hot days. Second, movies could become your best friend. And finally, innovation could also help keep you chilled out—in more ways than one.

Embracing the Great Outdoors

I remember when watching the Barry Levinson semi-autobiographical movie Avalon about his family’s settling in Baltimore thinking it was an exaggeration in a scene when people were gathered with their families and sleeping outside in the public parks.

The author’s favorite meme to celebrate summer heat.

Turn out, this actually happened. Sabrina Walters, 60, remembers, “My great aunt told me that the whole neighborhood around Patterson Park would just sleep outdoors at the park in the summer.” Walters says that while she didn’t sleep in the park, her parents did put up a big tent outside in July and August that she and her sister would sleep in.

But this didn’t just happen in Baltimore. “My Mom, who’s 73, told me that in Detroit, a lot of people would go to Belle Isle, a park owned by the city, and just stay there all day and sleep there overnight too — outdoors!” says Shannon Shelton Miller, 39.

Besides parks, folks took to their porches. “We slept on the back porch because the house was too stuffy,” says Anthony Enderle, 40. “I grew up in the Hamilton/Lauraville section of Baltimore, and our house had a huge wrap-around porch,” recalls Mary Therese Jackson Lutz, 61. “It was shaded by fir trees. After lunch in the summer, my sister, mom and I would sit on the porch and play cards. My brothers would swap baseball cards. It was cooler being outside on the porch than inside the house!”

“Houses had sleeping porches on the second floor that were lined with windows that could be opened for the breeze,” says Angie Klink, 58, who grew up in LaFayette, Ind.

Or you could sleep inside, just not in your bedroom, as Judi Mayberry, 61, remembers from growing up in Arbutus, a neighborhood in Baltimore County: “I remember sleeping in the hallway with wet washcloths on our wrists to cool us down.”

Sometimes, they just went outside for awhile. “In Baltimore, after dinner, you sat out on the front steps — made of marble, so cooling! — talked to the neighbors, and ate a Snowball, [a local shaved ice delicacy]” says Leah Benzing, 51, of Baltimore.

Before Air Conditioning: All Fanned Out

Before air conditioning, many people’s saving grace was a fan — or many fans, depending on how your family used them.

Dave McHugh, 41, says, “Not sure if it was fun, but when I grew up in downtown Chicago, it would get hot in the summers. We did not have AC in the then-nearly 200-year-old Victorian home. However, we did have a huge fan in an attic window. I remember being allowed to turn it on. First, I’d close all the windows and open all the doors in the house. Then, I’d head to the attic and turn the fan on. I would then ‘race’ the breeze down the stairs to the first floor. This was the only way we could stay cool. That and sleeping in just our underwear.”

Other folks used attic fans as well. “There is no hot like Montgomery, Alabama hot,” says Linda Steele Denham, 68. “My dad could turn on the attic fan — a staple in every home — open the windows just right and pull the hot air out with a window fan at the other end of the house.”

Darryl Musick, 56, says that his dad bought a “swamp cooler,” which is another name for an evaporative cooler (these were devices that would draw air through a wet membrane that would cool the air as it passed through and back into the house), in his childhood in South El Monte, Calif. “That worked fairly well unless the humidity went up,” he admits.

The heat also made people become innovative.

“My great-granny set a bowl of ice in front of a fan,” says Anne Parris, 47. “It worked.” She wasn’t the only one who used ice.

“We lived in a multi-story house when I was young in the late 1940s,” says Vera Marie Badertscher, 78. “In hot Ohio summers, my dad pulled mattresses downstairs and set up fans. He filled large bowls with ice and aimed the fans over them — evaporative cooling, before it was a thing.”

Embracing the Great Indoors

Lots of people also stayed indoors — just not in their own homes.

“When my late wife and I first got married, we didn’t have AC, so we would go to the movies, go to a mall, or go grocery shopping together — those refrigerated and freezer cases felt great,” recalls Michael Plank, 61, who lived in Baltimore at the time.

Certain businesses made sure you knew they had AC: “You knew the movie was air-conditioned when you saw the sign of a freezing penguin with a scarf around the neck,” recalls Mary-Kate Machey, 71.

The movie theater that Judy Colbert, 76, frequented in Maryland was sponsored by Kool cigarettes. “I remember the sign in the cashier’s window said, ‘It’s Kool inside,’ printed on paper that looked like a Kool cigarette wrapper,” she says.

Keeping Cool Today

If you need some ideas on how to stay cool today, Siobhan Green, 46, who spends a lot of time in African countries for work as the owner of an IT company that helps developing nations with data and IT systems — so she knows hot — says to do the following:

  • Dress for it. If you look at how a lot of people dress, light fabrics, cover the skin — flowy fabric is good and avoid dark colors.
  • Allow yourself to sweat.
  • Plan for the heat. Siestas are perfect for hot afternoons. Do stuff in the morning when it is cooler or at night. Bring water everywhere and stay out of the sun.

Angie Dobransky, 53, lived without AC in Silver Spring, Md., until recently. She has a few suggestions: If you’re hot, take a shower — hot or cold —as it instantly cools you off. Fill socks with rice and keep them in the freezer. Then, place them around your neck to cool yourself off. Forget clothes and embrace your naked self. Cook nothing.

And if all else fails, be thankful you weren’t Alison Gillespie’s grandmother.

Gillespie, who’s in her 40s, remembers the controversy that happened when her grandma fought against having AC put into her southern Baptist church in North Carolina in the 1970s or ‘80s. “She thought it was an indulgent thing to do that indicated a kind of selfishness that was less than Christian. They outvoted her and did it anyway, and right away the number of people coming to services doubled on Sundays!” says Gillespie. “She said she’d never been so glad to be wrong about something. She never did get AC in her house, though.”

By Michele Wojciechowski
Michele "Wojo" Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer who lives in Baltimore, Md. She's the author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They'll Carry Me Out in a Box. Reach her at www.WojosWorld.com.@TheMicheleWojo

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