How We Stayed Cool Before Air Conditioning
Although Spring is officially in full-swing here in Arizona, summer will be here before we know it. With an average summertime temperature of 103° F here in Phoenix, this is the aptly-named city for anyone who loves the heat. We may love all that sun most of the time, but much of that sun worship comes from our ability to escape the sun’s heat with cool, comforting air conditioning.
The massive heat index that we experience year after year is no joke – people continuously suffer from heat-related injuries and even death when they can’t escape the extreme Southern Arizona weather. Most people have a hard time getting by when their A/C goes out for an hour or two, so imagine how hard it must have been to live in this and other hot climates before the air conditioners were the standard in home cooling solutions.
At a time when an air conditioner could not be conceived of, our very smart ancestors found that right here, in the middle of a vast desert landscape, was one of the coolest and most temperate places to call home: caves.
Caves are nature’s little way of providing year-round cooling to anyone smart enough to take advantage of it. From the Pueblo Indians to the Himalayan peoples of the Upper Mustang, caves have always been the temperate retreats for those who need to escape the heat and the cold without living a nomadic lifestyle.
Even today, millions of folks live in caves throughout the world. In China’s Shaanxi province, nearly 30-million people call yaodongs (caves) their home. Cave living offers a whole lot of benefits, even now in a time of air conditioning.
Mud and Brick
In the Middle East, where the desert heat can be overbearing, ancient brick-making techniques and mud huts were the ideal solutions to keeping cool during the day and staying warm at night. Acting as heat absorbers, sun-baked bricks prevent all that outdoor warmth from getting inside the cool homes. Conversely, at nighttime when the temperatures in the desert can drop 30 degrees, those same heat-filled bricks release their stored heat into the home to as they absorb the cold night air.
The Romans were especially advanced when it came to developing the aqueduct systems to cool off. While the aqueduct had long been in use by Egyptians and Babylonians (as well as others) long before Rome ever introduced them to their city plans, the Roman civil engineers took aqueduct building to a whole new level, creating such well-built aqueduct systems that are still in use today.
Those same aqueducts were used to funnel cold, cool water into pipes tucked away inside the walls of Roman homes, which in turn cooled off the walls and the homes to a comfortable level.
Clothing was an integral part of maintaining the body’s discomfort from the heat as well. While today’s fabrics include non-breathable materials like spandex and polyester, clothing pre-air conditioning needed to be breathable and allow for air to circulate freely to keep skin cool and dry in the hot summer sun. Linen, created from papyrus, became the fabric of choice from ancient Egypt to the 19th century.
Do you know why homes everywhere have covered porches? It is so people could sit outside at night time and relieve themselves from the heat their home’s trapped all day long. As porches became standard, particularly in certain areas of the country, they led to socialization habits that helped smart business owners attract customers. By incorporating porches as means of attracting those who wanted to beat the heat, these businesses helped retaining customers with their shaded offerings.
Last but not least, fans are the global standard way to provide portable air circulation for anyone, from peasants to emperors around the world. From palm fronds to folded paper fans, everyone was able to cool themselves, at least for a while, with a hand-held fan. Electric fans would not bring people relief until 1882, when New Orleans, Louisiana resident and longtime muggy summer-sufferer Schuyler Skaats Wheeler could take no more heat without relief.
Today we can enjoy indoor comfort in all sorts of ways, from outdoor air conditioning units to mini ductless split systems, and we rarely have to give the extreme heat a second thought. The next time your air conditioner breaks, you can rest easy knowing that the Sharp Air repair team will be there soon to give you the relief you need. Until we get there, pick up a hand fan, put on your best linen top, and maybe get outdoors and sit on your covered porch to cool off for a bit.