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Life Before Air Conditioning

Author Photo
By Renee-Lucie Benoit | Jul 8, 2020

lake-swim
Courtesy of Wikimedia

I live in the Central Valley of California and it’s been over 100 degrees for days now. Yesterday the high was 106. I went outside at 9 a.m. and it was already 90 degrees so when I came back from my errand I went inside and stayed there until 8 p.m. that night. Sometimes I feel like I’m living on Tatooine with Luke Skywalker and his aunt and uncle! Thankfully the high is only going to be 91 today so we can get some work done and won’t be at risk for heat exhaustion. I’ve had that and it’s not fun. When it happened I was in the Nevada desert, it was almost 112 degrees and the humidity was only 5%. I began thinking “weird” thoughts and felt slightly queasy in my stomach. That’s when everything stopped and I had to sit down, drink water and have water poured over me for quite a while until I was OK.

It got me thinking about the days before anybody had air conditioning. What did we do? I grew up in Iowa so even though the temperature might not be over 100 degrees the humidity got to you and big time. I remember laying on the bed at night sweating and unable to sleep. Mom put a big fan in the hall so all the bedrooms got a little bit of air circulation. She sometimes put another fan in an opposite window but pointing out so that fan would suck the air out and create cross-ventilation coming from the hall fan. During the day I spent hours in the basement reading all the old Life magazines that my mom had saved. Sometimes we went to spend the day at the municipal pool.

I asked old friends from those days what they did and I got a number of good ideas.

Lots of open windows in the house and car. Remember they had those funeral home donated cardboard or paper fans at church. I can picture my grandma fanning herself. Riding my bike always cooled me off. – Deborah L. from Indiana

Sometimes on a humid Iowa night, dad would say let’s go get ice cream. We would take a road trip to a neighboring town where they had a good creamery or over to (Tastee Freeze?) and get what mom called frozen custard. – Toni B. from Colorado

Swamp coolers. Also, damp sheets act as personal swamp coolers.Holly M. from Iowa

Cold wet washcloth on the back of the neck. I remember Mom let us sleep on her clean linoleum kitchen floor with a pillow and a sheet. We thought it was an adventure. She would say, “Remember, If you’re very, very still, you won’t feel as hot,” we bought it! Ha! We didn’t get AC until I was 10. Kathryn C. from Iowa

Before I got A/C, I spent a lot of time in a bathtub full of cool water, I kept my hair wet all the time. I kept a wet towel draped over the back of my chair to keep my back cool. Drank a lot of ice water. – Judy H. from Alberta, Canada

We lived in the country so we could open windows in all directions to get a bit of airflow if it existed. After I married I was without A/C we would all “camp out” on our screened-in porch!Marsha E. from Iowa

Run a fan over a bucket of ice water, very effective for a small space. The old swamp box effect. – Dave C. from California

I had a creek behind my house, in the middle of the night I’d get in, wet my hair and then go lay back down.Lori C. from California

I used to take multiple showers, baths and use talc or corn starch. – Ivana Kurtz from Iowa

Pop & I would drive to the ice store in town and get a 12 inch or bigger square block of ice in a heavy plastic bag.  Drive home and place it in an old wide pan shut the windows and let the fan blow across the ice block into the room from the hallway!Lynn W. from Iowa

There was no AC in the upstairs bedroom so we slept in the basement. We placed a fan in one window to bring air in, and another in a window pulling air out while we put a wet cloth on our chest. We had little heat in winter, we were tougher then. – Alan H. from Iowa

We had a huge reverse ceiling fan that pulled air up through the roof bringing air in at night. I miss that fan! The night air was very strong and cool, it came in so fast! Michigan wasn’t this hot though. Feeling nostalgic!Christie W. from Michigan

My Dad put a large fan facing out the screen door. He said it would force air through the windows but I thought it was worthless. My bedroom windows faced the garage and the house next door which was about 5 ft away. I felt no air at all. Those were long, very hot nights.Pat G. from Iowa

We ran through backyard sprinklers or washed out the horse troughs and filled them up with clean water to soak in all day! My horse, back then, always joined me and would  splash if I stayed in too long!! – Diane D. from California

Swamp cooler, fans, windows with screens wide open at night and plenty of swimming pools or swimming holes. But still, 90 degree temps beginning of September when school started. I can still remember how sweaty I got sitting at my desk. No AC back in the 50s. – Betsy R. from California

We muddled through somehow but I’m glad someone went through the trouble to invent central air conditioning.  It’s worth it! How did you survive without air conditioning?

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