How Did Our Ancestors Beat the Heat?

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While cooling off in my comfortable air-conditioned home, I wonder what summer was like for my ancestors. How did they attempt to keep cool during intense heat waves without the modern advancements we enjoy? How did they make the most of their summers?

Farm boys eating ice-cream cones, July 1941 (Credit: Library of Congress)

The first modern electrical air conditioning unit was invented in 1902 by Willis Carrier in Buffalo, New York. Air conditioning for residential homes was introduced in the 1920s. It wasn’t until the post-World War II economic boom that air conditioners became commonplace in homes. In 1953, over 1 million units were sold.

So how did our ancestors, who lived before air conditioning, survive the heat? In many different ways!

Licking blocks of ice on a hot day, c1910 (Credit: Library of Congress)
  • Many community buildings in hot areas were built on hilltops or rises to catch more breeze during the summer.
  • Houses were built with breezes in mind. Each window had another on the opposite side of the house with a doorway between to catch the maximum breeze.
  • People would bathe at night and go to bed damp.
  • They would blow air over sheets soaked in ice water.
  • Attic fans were installed.
  • People would sleep out under the stars on their porches.

Although these solutions sound much less effective than air conditioning, our ancestors didn’t know any better, and they were used to dealing with the heat.

When I look back at photos of my ancestors enjoying long summer days, I realize they weren’t really missing anything at all. I see the kids splashing in the water, and the adults looking on, everyone enjoying each other’s company. Life may have been different back then, but people still knew how to make the most of it and have a good time.

How did your ancestors beat the summer heat?

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  • John Bratton


    July 25, 2016

    I was born in June of 1936, the hottest summer on record. In order to keep the mothers and newborns (me) cool, the hospital brought in fans and blocks of ice which they placed in the room windows (they could open!). That summer and the next hundreds of people spent nights sleeping on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto to take advantage of the breeze coming off the shore of Lake Ontario

  • John Thomas-Harding


    July 30, 2016

    I emigrated fomo the U.K. , November 1952 on assisted passage at 17.y.o. straight from school to start work on a farm in Western Queensland. As a kid I loved the heat but oddly found it rather cold out there in the winter. The houses were built to allow the air to circulate and had overhanging eaves and wide verandahs.

  • Barbara Geisert


    August 1, 2016

    We had a “summer kitchen” in our basement. That is where we cooked and ate. Our house had very dark green window shades, they were pulled up in the early evening and were pulled down in the late morning. Front and back door were opened in the early morning to let the cool air in.

    Barbara in Georgia
    May God Continue to Bless America!

  • Marian


    August 1, 2016

    Remember the breezeway — sort of a wind tunnel/porch/family room between (say) a garage and the the main structure of the house? In the evenings, after working in the garden, it felt good to cool off by just sitting on a porch and talking as we admired our neat garden rows.

  • Delores idaho


    August 2, 2016

    in kansas till nine years of age. Do not remember it being hot. In 1952 family moved to Washington state in July in an old car with no air condition except four windows to roll down. Four kids and a dog and mom and dad. Mom showed us how to wrap a wet wash cloth around wrists to get cool. Who knew? We learned it would get icy cold if we held the damp cloth out window. But don’t lose the cloth as we were very poor. It was a great journey to our new home in the great northwest.

  • Bob West


    August 6, 2016

    Our ancestors also did not wear summer clothes. You don’t see any of them in shorts.

  • Eddy Lurry


    August 27, 2016

    Of course, the other advantage of those seaside homes was the ability to go for a swim anytime you wanted to cool off. Water absorbs heat from our bodies faster than air does, especially already hot air. The cool water will cool your body off, and then you can get a bonus from the wind when you climb out of the water all wet.