Old School Cool
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Maybe you think about it once a year – that first blistering day in June that catches you off guard, before you’ve put the AC units back in the windows for the season: How the heck did people survive before the invention of air conditioning?
It’s not surprising that before air conditioning became a common household necessity in the late 1960s, refrigerating our home and work environments, people went to many carefree and often ingenious lengths to beat the heat in the summertime.
How would you have kept your cool before air conditioning? Here are a few ways folks would chill out back then:
Go to the Movies. Movie theaters were among the first commercially air-chilled oases of comfort. In fact, the first air conditioner as we know it debuted in New York City’s palatial Rivoli Theater in 1925.
Sit in Front of the Open Refrigerator. Would have provided only moderate relief as the freezer compartments in typical refrigerators were minimal, only large enough to hold two ice cube trays, until the 1960s. Also, you would get yelled at by your parents or spouse for keeping the fridge door open and letting all the cool out.
Put your Sheets (or Unmentionables) in the Fridge. “When it gets hot like this, you know what I do? I keep my undies in the icebox!” (Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch,” 1955).
Get an Ice Cream Cone. Or a Coca Cola with chipped ice, or a Lime Rickey, Orangeade or Grape Mint Julep soda. Drug store soda fountains and luncheonettes were popular gathering places in every town.
Sit in front of a Fan. Electric table fans were invented in the early 1900s. They provided a breeze that made you feel cooler – though the effect was mostly psychological.
Chill on the Roof. At bedtime, many apartment dwellers would drag their mattresses up to the roof – commonly referred as the “tar beach” -- to escape the sweltering heat inside. The Drifters’s 1962 hit, “Up on the Roof,” romanticized summertime roof lounging somewhat for city dwellers. Sleeping on fire escapes was another, somewhat shaky way to doze in the open air.
Be Thankful for High Ceilings. Rooms with high ceilings benefit from the tendency of heat to rise. If heat gathers in the top third of a room, then a ten-foot ceiling will make a room relatively cooler for most people.
Play in the Fire Hydrant Spray. It’s tradition. City-dwellers have been popping open their neighborhood fire hydrants (legally and illegally) and frolicking in the luxuriously cold dousing since the fixtures were first installed. An open fire hydrant without a sprinkler cap on gushes out water at a rate of 1,000 gallons a minute.
Sleep in the Shade. The easiest way to cool off in the middle of the day for many workers was to take a lunch break dozing in the leafy shade under a tree in the park.
Go to the Beach. People have been flocking to beaches for a splash in the water since the early 1800s. There was the refreshing surf to frolic in, plus other pleasures like clam bars, beer halls, and amusement rides.
Rub Ice on Your Wrist. Also your temple, back of your neck, and behind your knees. These “pulse point” areas are where blood vessels are closest to the surface of the skin. Icing them cools down the whole body.
Hang Wet Towels in the Windows if you have the slightest breeze and relatively low humidity. The trapped water evaporates and cools the air flowing through it into your house. This is a primitive, though no less effective version of “swamp cooler” technology.
Wham-O Slip 'N Slide TV commercial (1986)
Photos (from top): Hammock at Key West beach, by Royce Bair via Flickr Creative Commons; Biograph Theater, 1934, Chicago Tribune photo archives; Cool Inside sign, Scienceofthesouth.com; city fire escape scene, by etccdb via Flickr Creative Commons; Brooklyn summer scene at Park Slope, NYC by Axel Taferner via Flickr Creative Commons; Day at the beach, 1940; photo courtesy Orange County Archives.