How People Kept Cool Before Air Conditioners

What did people do to cool down before air conditioners during hot long summers? Let's look at some strategies they used.
Christopher McFadden

So, what did people use to cool down before air conditioners? Their lives must have been unbearable during long hot summers. Or were they?

As it turns out they got by just fine and used a variety of solutions, as you'll see. When Willies Carrier invented what we would know as an air conditioner in 1902, it wasn't his intention to cool your home. These early AC machines were designed for use in industrial quality control. The ever-increasing drive for steel and glass skyscrapers soon created the need for AC applications to make them possible to work in.

Domestic applications become the norm after WW2 which, in part, led to the age of suburban tract housing, in the US. The mass adoption of this technology forever changed traditional architectural details and customs.

So how did people keep cool before air conditioning? Let's look at some examples. The following are far from exhaustive as you can imagine.

Live underground

Yep, before air conditioners, some people lived underground. This is one of our ancestors' oldest strategies for controlling their dwellings' temperature. Cave dwelling also counts here, plus it adds a level of safety and defense unmatched until we started fortifying settlements.

From a climate control point of view, living in a cave or underground offers fantastically stable temperatures all year round. In some places in the world, entire cities were built underground, some great examples can be found in Cappadocia, Turkey.

How People Kept Cool Before Air Conditioners
Source: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons

More modern examples include this house found in Pie Town, New Mexico. It was inexpensive (except in labor) to build and nice and cool in summer.


How People Kept Cool Before Air Conditioners
Circo 1940, Source: Shorpy

Living underground might not be your bag, but this method of cooling exists today in deep spacious basements, split-level homes, and homes built into hillsides. You'll know immediately that these areas are generally nice and cool even in the height of summer.

Modern examples of those found in Turkey can be found in Subtropolis, though this is the workplace rather than a city.


How People Kept Cool Before Air Conditioners
Subtropolis, Source: Americasroof/WikimediaCommons

Thick walls

Thick walls helped people to cool down their houses before air conditioners. Cave dwellings were later somewhat duplicated with the use of local stones or man-made bricks or to build thickly walled dwellings. Their thermal mass tended to maintain internal temperatures relatively stable throughout the year.

How People Kept Cool Before Air Conditioners
Source:  Aurbanski /WikimediaCommons

Stone walls are great conductors of heat. Though it takes a long time to absorb it, once it does this energy is retained and can be radiated afterward, sometimes for days.

Of course, this can work for and against you if you want to effectively heat your home. During winter, this could prove very costly to retain heat, for instance, but you'll stay nice and cool in summer.

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High ceilings and chimneys

Older construction buildings, notably between the 17th and 19th Centuries, often have nice high ceilings. This type of building design benefits from internal air convection. Heat will gather at the top third or so of the room making the bottom bit, where you are, relatively cool. Ceiling fans can accentuate this effect by pulling air up during the summer and pushing warmer air down during the winter.

Older buildings with more than one story also took advantage of stack effect. Open stairwells allowed heated air to be vented upstairs passively. Chimneys also aided with this effect. Plus they were generally not air tight with floor voids and wall vents for good ventilation. Afterall, they needed plenty of outside air so they didn't poison themselves with fumes from their fires.

You might have noticed that occupants tended to only use upper floors at night with the windows open, for this very reason.

Some even integrated towers or turrets to act as wind catchers to help exhaust internal heat. Plus they looked awesome.

Live in the shade

One of the biggest problems with homes in the summer is solar gain through your windows. Older homes also tended to plant deciduous trees to the East and West elevations to help alleviate this. These act as pretty external natural obstructions to shade the house during summer months. They effectively block the sunlight from ever hitting the house in the first place. When the leaves die off during the autumn, sunlight can then help heat your home.

Trees also cool down breezes slightly before they reach the porch or open windows and doors. Many older buildings also integrated awnings and window overhangs to provide a similar effect.

As the sun's angle is higher in summer than in winter, these features also allowed more sunlight in when the sun was lower during the winter. Clever eh?

Sleep on the porch

Older buildings, especially in generally hot climates, also tended to integrate front porches. These also became a means of social interaction for occupants. You could either just chill on your own or visit your neighbors and relax there.

How People Kept Cool Before Air Conditioners
Source: Pixabay

On hot nights, the porch would be a great place to rest in the evening and perhaps even sleep. Apartment dwellers would even sleep on fire escapes in high rise buildings if the heat was unbearable. Sadly the advent of cars, television, and AC slowly started to kill of this tradition.

Perhaps it's time for a revival?

Life before air conditioners wasn't that bad at all. People have been working and living in climates much hotter than ours today for millennia and adapted themselves and their homes accordingly. Although most of us wouldn't want to trade in our AC for a hole in the ground, it might be nice to take a leaf out of our recent ancestors' book and spend more time out on the porch, for instance.

Do you have any suggestions of what people did before air conditioners to keep cool? We'd be very interested to hear from you.

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