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Before air-conditioning, there was just sweat

By Staff | Aug 13, 2012

Well, August is upon us and the heat index is hotter then it has ever been. This has truly been the long hot summer. I used to enjoy the heat and used to get out in it from sun up to sunset. Now, unless I have something important to do, I just sit around in an air-conditioned apartment reading or doing a cross word puzzle.

The world without air conditioning was radically different from the one we experience today. For example, before air conditioning, the summer heat transformed Washington; D.C. into a virtual ghost town as politicians abandoned the nation’s capital to escape its oppressive temperatures and humidity. The dripping heat of summers in the deep south withered the enthusiasm of industries to locate there.

When I was young and school was out, I thought that the summer lasted at least six months. As I got older, the length of summer started to shrink. Now I almost feel like that I go to bed on the night of June 1st and seem to feel as if the next day is the first day of September. Summer seems to pass in a twinkling of an eye, as do most of the other seasons. The years seem to pass more quickly.

Most every day during the summer I swam either at the Anacostia Boys Club or, though it was not allowed, some of us kids would swim in the Potomac River.

In my teens, I spent a lot of time at drive in movies. There were several around the Washington area. Back then movies were changed more often and so it was like a continuous loop of seeing new movies all summer long.

Every now and then that old adventurous spirit gets to me and I go out sometimes to lunch or sometimes just to go for a long drive. Of course, the drive is done in the comfort of an air-conditioned car.

In 1902, Willis Carrier invented the first modern electrical air conditioning unit. Air conditioning was first offered in1939 as an option in a Packard automobile.

The Britannica Encyclopedia explains what Carrier did to produce cool air. “Carrier used his knowledge of the heating of objects with steam and reversed the process. Instead of sending air through hot coils, he sent it through cold coils (ones filled with cold water). The air blowing over the cold coils cooled the air, and one could thereby control the amount of moisture the colder air could hold. In turn, the humidity in the room could be controlled. The low heat and humidity helped maintain consistent paper dimensions and ink alignment.”.

In the early 1920’s Carrier’s invention was introduced into movie houses. Because air-condition was still rare and expensive it was not widely used, people started flocking to the movies just to get out of the heat.

Growing up in Washington we did not have air-conditioning. The house we lived in had a natural cross breeze and when there was no breeze we sat just sweated. We kids drank a lot of water and ate a lot of Popsicles. Mother cooked less making a lot of salads such as my favorite tuna salad. Sometimes it was so hot that we spent all night in the back yard.

Central air-conditioning came to my grandmother’s house in the early 1940s and then most of the family would gather at her house for what were called summer parties.

I have to say in all honesty that there are times I miss those long hot summer days growing up in Washington D.C.