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What did People Do Before Air Conditioning?

Curiosity about peoples’ lives is common.  We wonder, what was life like back then?  “Back then” can be used to describe any time in the past, whether it is wondering what it felt like to wear that much hair spray in the 80’s or wondering what games ancient Roman children played.  The “back then” this post is discussing is the “era before air conditioning.”  It has become such a regular part of our daily lives in the United States that it is hard to even imagine what it was like to NOT have it.  Yes, I know that some people rarely turn on their air conditioners, but the fact remains that whether or not you use it a lot, it still surrounds us at the bank, the grocery store, the movie theatre, the mall etc….  So what was it like on hot sweltering days prior to climate control?

Forms of air conditioning have been traced back to ancient Egypt when people would hang reeds wet with water from their windows and let the evaporation of the water cool off the breezes that blew into their homes.  However, modern air conditioning wasn’t invented until 1902 when Willis Carrier came along and it wasn’t used residentially until even later.

Before air conditioning was available homes were built differently.  Their position, design and the materials they were built out of were all carefully selected to keep it cool in hot weather.  For example, thicker walls out of brick, stone or adobe were used for the home.  These created a “cave effect” in the home that kept it cooler. Trees were usually planted on the east and west sides of the home to block the sun as it rose and set, and ceilings were higher so that the hot air would rise to the top, out of the way of the people on the ground.    Lastly, the front porch was a very important “room” of the house where people could sit outside and enjoy the fresh breezes.  Sometimes, people would even sleep outside on them.

High ceilings and thick walls weren’t their only defense against the heat.  People also had some other tricks up their sleeves back then:

  • Hand fans
  • Rotating fans
  • Awnings on windows
  • Hanging wet laundry in the doorway
  • Putting underwear in the icebox
  • President Garfield even had a set up where air was blown through sopping wet sheets.

Thanks to Willis Carrier and his air conditioning our homes no longer have to be designed with the intention of keeping them cool, worker productivity increased in the warm months, and the hot southern states have even seen an increase of population.  For more information about air conditioning, how it works and maintaining it, please contact FLAME!


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