Florida is in for a heat wave. Yes, it’s only May, but it’s May in Florida. Temps in the three digits with the heat indices (the “feel like” temps) going way above that. But, thankfully, we have Mr. Carrier to thank for inventing air conditioning! Our office unit went out last weekend and was not fixed until Tuesday morning. That is miserable in itself, but battling a sinus infection to boot was not fun.
That got me thinking about how our ancestors handled the heat, especially in the humid areas like Florida, before air conditioning. I think a lot of how they traveled by foot to most places, in the extremes of the weather, on boats and in trains with no air conditioning, without the comfort of shorts and tees like we have today.
So, how did they handle the heat? In watching some shows on old homes and castles, the ceilings were very high and windows were placed in such a way as to catch the breezes. One fine example is the old Logan homestead in Connecticut. Look at those windows!
Before electricity, houses would have large clothlike fans that hung from the ceiling with a long rope and they would swing them back and forth to move the air. The “shoo-fly” fan was varied and could be used over the dining room table while eating or in a sitting room while reading.
However, those who couldn’t afford these “shoo-fly” fans had to be creative. People hung their wet laundry in front of doorways, some kept their sheets refrigerated. And, others, froze their underwear! Some people even braided ice cubes in their hair… hm. Others wet their curtains so that when the wind blew, it would blow cooler air. When they started to dry out, they just threw cups of water at them.
Homeowners with flat roofs would water down their roofs when the sun went down to keep the house cooler to sleep. Some would sleep on those roofs. They had shade trees on both the east and west side of the houses. “Shotgun” houses, like those still found in Louisiana, were made one-room width of the building which allows for windows and doors to be lined up for cross-ventilation.
In other houses, windows were opposite each other for cross ventilation. And, of course, front porches were where families gathered most of the time. The front porch was a “social institution”. The comfort of electricity has killed that in more ways than one. People used to stroll outside and sit in porch swings. And, some homes had “sleeping porches” made for sleeping at night, screened in for protection. There was a lot of creek swimming back then too.
People wore loose fitting and flowing clothes made of cotton or linen and colors of white. Schedules were different, unlike how the tv shows portrayed, a lot of people ate their meals later in the day. Beds were positioned in front of their windows. People napped during the hottest parts of the day so they could work in the cooler part. They got up very early to do their chores. The ice-man was very popular! Delivering blocks of ice was as popular as the ice cream man today.
The 1891-built house the Barnacle in Florida cleverly put a cupola on its roof to act as a ventilator. As hot air rose, it could escape through the cupola. Fresh, cooler air could then enter through one of the many double-height windows and doors that opened directly onto the generous wraparound porches.
Of course, the oldest “invention” were cave dwellers, those living underground enjoyed temperatures in the 50’s year round. This is why in those places with hills and mountains, houses were built into the sides of them so they had cooler places to congregate, underground. During a third-century summer, the eccentric Roman Emperor Elagabalus sent 1,000 slaves to the mountains to fetch snow for his gardens.
Of course, now we are so acclimated to air conditioning, we cannot deal with the heat when we go outside. We can blame climate change, El Niño, or whatever, but according to Berkely Earth, we are only 1.4 degrees warmer than we were in the 1950s. Let’s face it, we are spoiled! No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Yes, I do believe in climate change, I am not saying it is not happening. And, yes, the climate is warmer, but luckily, inventors like Carrier have helped us adapt.
Carrier is not my ancestor, but I am thankful to all who have gone before to pave the way for us.