I’ve often wondered how people endured heat waves before air-conditioning was commonplace. I’ve wondered that more often this year, especially during the past few weeks.
It seems unrealistic to believe that large front porches, high indoor ceilings, and fewer square miles of paved streets and parking lots could have made much of a difference. I mean, really. What was life like before we settled into our current habit every summer of racing from air-conditioned houses to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned offices and stores and back to air-conditioned cars and houses?
“Miserable” is the only conclusion I can reach. Sweating and fanning doesn’t sound like the way I want to cope.
Historians tell us about ancient times when the very wealthy would import mountain snow to hot locations or build houses where water could be circulated through the walls. More recently, we had some instances when people of every economic status chose to store their underwear in the icebox.
Significant developments in climate control during the early 20th century made living in warmer regions like Texas — and the rest of our southern United States — more bearable for everyone. Indeed, without air-conditioning, it seems unlikely that the American South would have ever been able to “rise again” industrially after the Civil War. Maybe it would have happened anyway but air-conditioning certainly made investing in warm weather states more attractive for entrepreneurs from the north.
The first giant step toward air-conditioning as we know it now came in 1902 when engineer Willis Carrier developed an air-cooled system to control the humidity in a printing plant. By 1925, Carrier had improved his system by adding a compressor, and New York theater patrons were the first to experience the benefits of this invention.
Air-conditioning systems quickly spread throughout the country to businesses, offices, railcars, and department stores, but residential air-conditioning was slow to catch on. In 1965, only 10 percent of U.S. homes enjoyed the advantages of refrigerated air to help owners find relief from the heat outside. Some 40 years later, the percentage was up to 86 percent, according to the Carrier Corporation.
During a boat ride along the San Antonio Riverwalk a couple of years ago, our guide pointed out the first air-conditioned high-rise building in the nation — in 1928. According to the San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio had the first air-conditioned bank, also in 1928, as well as the first fully air-conditioned store and hotel — both in 1936.
So here we are, several generations and almost a full century since our forefathers and our foremothers were forced to sweat their way through Texas summers much as this one, with little more than delivered block ice and fans to help them endure the heat. Eventually, they all rejoiced when the cool winds of autumn finally arrived.
The good Lord knew I needed to be born to live in this era, and not in an earlier one — at least if I was destined to live in Texas. I honestly don’t think I would have survived otherwise.
When you say your prayers before going to sleep tonight, offer thanks for the comfort that modern climate control systems provide. And also give thanks to the technicians who apply their skills in keeping these systems operational. We’ve all known times when the magic stopped working, and we were willing to move mountains — and pay whatever price — to get it restored.
Are we spoiled, or what?
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.