The Sweltering History of Central Air Conditioning
I love entertaining. It’s part of my personality. But let me tell you: Entertaining during summer used to be a completely different animal. Why? Because it was hot. And I’m not talking as though it was hot outside, forcing you indoors. It was actually hotter inside than it was outside most of the time. Can you imagine? Maybe if you live in Idaho or Minnesota or Vermont you don’t have to worry about such things. But, for those of us in the Sun Belt, the sweltering history of central air conditioning (and what proceeded it) makes us wonder how humanity persevered.
Here’s a look at the history of central air conditioning. Why? Because you should think twice about complaining the next time a heat wave hits your neck of the woods. It used to be a lot (a whole lot) worse.
What Did People Do Before AC?
I seriously thought about this: What in the world did people do without air conditioning? I’ll spend an hour outside in the July heat, and I’ll begin to worry about my health. What would you do, and where would you go, without being able to take refuge indoors?
Well, it turns out humanity is pretty resourceful. Here are just a few of the tricks people used to stay cool during summertime before the days of air conditioning:
1. Hide Underground
Grab a shovel and dig just a few inches down. You’ll find that the soil is cool to the touch. That’s because it’s a lot cooler underground than it is here at surface level.
Back before the days of AC, people would dig down and build them homes at least partially underground. When the hot days of July and August would hit, homeowners (and their families) would head below ground where the surrounding soil served as air conditioning the way nature intended. It was far cooler in these cellar and basement areas than it was upstairs and indoors or certainly outside.
2. Create Shade
Find a row of older homes in your hometown, and you’ll notice that many have some seriously mature trees right next to the walls. That’s because, back before AC, builders and homeowners would strategically plant trees near structures so that they would cast shade and cool down the inside.
In fact, you’ll notice when looking at older homes, mature trees often line the east and west sides of the house — the portions most likely to get direct sunlight throughout the day.
3. Build Breezy Spaces
A lack of air conditioning even changed architecture. Without AC, builders would design homes with large, wraparound porches. These porches provided shade, and homeowners could sit on whatever side was getting the most wind.
If builders didn’t design wraparound porches into new homes, they would often create breezeways. Breezeways were popular features in pioneer cabins. They would serve as a sitting room, dividing the kitchen on one side and a bedroom or two on the other side of the structure. On hot days, a family could sit in the breezeway and enjoy a reprieve from the heat as offered by gusts of wind.
Breezeways also provided shade, but that’s not to say they were used after sundown. Homeowners and families might even sleep in the breezeway area on exceptionally hot nights.
4. Run Fans
What did people do on still days and nights? Well, if there’s no wind, you should just create your own, right? Back before AC and even before electricity, people would use anything they could find as a fan, including feathers, leaves and rolled up pieces of paper. Manufactured fans were designed to be easy to both hold during use and fold up afterward.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as electricity spread to more and more towns and homes, electric fans arrived on the market. These early electric fans providing an upgrade until home air conditioning units became commonplace.
When Was Air Conditioning Invented?
Credit for the first air conditioner goes to Willis Carrier, who began offering the first-ever AC unit way back in 1902. You might recognize the name — the Carrier company is one of the largest AC manufacturers in the world today.
But, as you can imagine, the 1902 version of an AC unit was neither reliable nor particularly effective. I’m picturing it as more of a novelty at the time. Today, when I’m hot, I can simply walk to the control panel on the wall, click a button, and on roars the air conditioning. I take it all for granted, and I bet you do, too.
Early air conditioning got better over time. But I can still remember my grandmother talking about avoiding homes with AC because it created more humidity and it would ruin her hairdo. That’s not something I worry about today.
The Tipping Point for AC
Those mid-century AC units might ruin a hairdo, and they were expensive, too. They were so expensive, in fact, that very few homes had one. By 1965, only 10 percent of American homes included an AC. Schools didn’t have them either, for the most part. My mom tells stories about opening the windows in class on hot September afternoons. Everyone would just sit there in silence, she said, because it was too hot for teachers to teach or students to learn.
Yes, AC was definitely a luxury item back then. Just look at this Carrier advertisement that ran in Life magazine back in the 1950s. It literally includes diamonds, fresh flowers and wainscoting:
Well, AC got better and more affordable. By 2007, 86 percent of homes included an AC. And keep in mind that many don’t need AC units. I have an uncle who once lived in New Hampshire, and he scoffed at the idea of having an AC unit. They just don’t need them.
Make the Most of Your Existing AC Unit
I loved reading this post by my friend and colleague Dale Johnson, who wrote all about AC-related ways to reduce your electric bill. While AC units and electric costs are lower today than they were 50 and 100 years ago, it’s still nice to save.
I love hearing my grandmother and mom talk about those early days of the air conditioner. Do you have a story? Let us know in the comments section below, or send me a message directly through our contact page.