11 Ways People Kept Cool Before Central Air

Other than wishing for death. Most of us take air conditioning for granted. After all, it’s always been there and it always will be. But until sixty years ago, it was virtually unheard of. But yet we did not, as a people, succumb to lethargy and sunstroke.

1. Cave Dwellings

Caves: Nature’s Air Conditioners! One could argue the most intelligent of our ancestors looked out into the heat wave and said “No thanks.” All over the world people have built homes and, in the case of the Pueblo Indians, whole civilizations in the dark cold embrace of caves.

2. Fans

Whether it was a slave fanning a Sumerian noble with palm leaves or an intricate Elizabethan accessory made of ostrich feathers, stirring the air with manual effort is one of the oldest forms of personal air conditioning.

3. Damp Sheets/Evaporation Technique

Considered by me to be one of the most boring parts of 8th grade science, evaporation used to be a crucial part of keeping cool. Egyptians would hang damp sheets in doorways to turn arid breezes into ancient mist machines. In more modern times, pioneers would sleep under wet blankets to stave off the heat.

4. Windcatchers

Prevalent in Persian architecture, these towers were built to catch strong desert winds. Used in conjunction with high windows, the wind would be “caught” by the open side of the tower and funneled into the home which in turn forced the warmer air inside up and out the windows.

5. Snow

Snow is for the winter…and the summer. From the time of the Greeks all the way through the end of the Renaissance, snow was big money. Hauled down from local (or not so local) mountain ranges and kept in specialized pits, frozen water was a commodity to be used in drinks, to keep food fresh or strategically placed around the home to take advantage of the evaporation effect.

6. Mud, Sod & Other Bricks

Turns out those sun-baked mud huts are one of the best forms of natural solar power in the world. Bricks absorb heat during the day and release it at night, helping to regulate the temperature inside. This explains why most homes after the Industrial Revolution but prior to the widespread use of central air were constructed of brick.

7. Shade Trees

If you ever wonder why southern plantations have sweeping vistas of tree lined roads or why your grandparents seem to have more trees in their backyard than your whole subdivision, wonder no more! Instead of an eyesore to be pulled up before building, construction used to take these natural air conditioners into account and build around them. Or, if you were obscenely wealthy, imported fully grown.

8. Tall, Symmetrical Windows (Air Flow)

Windows today are short and fat like Americans because they’re mostly for decoration, to the point that some people paint them shut. Shockingly windows used to have a purpose and that was air flow. Any older house with tall, skinny windows usually lined them up in the front and back to move as much air as possible through the room.

And this was just the evolution of ancient techniques where homes from Italy to Arabia were built around open air courtyards, many times with a fountain or pool at the center for practical (evaporation) as well as aesthetical purposes.

9. Covered Front Porch

Travel to any neighborhood that sprouted up like so many mushrooms after WWII and you’ll see covered porches on every home. Sure it might be 97 degrees and stifling in the house but it’s only 95 degrees with a breeze and shade on the porch.

10. Linen & Muslin

Take a look at what materials make up your wardrobe. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
….
………..
Back? If you’re anything like the rest of the western world, most of your stuff is made of polyester or contains spandex/lycra. Material that doesn’t breathe. Which is fine since we live the Age of Central Air.

Not so back in the day. Ancient Egyptians first created linen from papyrus and made it a major export to other Mediterranean nations. Marie Antoinette gained the ire of a nation trying to stave off heat stroke through light weight summer clothes.

11. Central Air (Sneaky, Cheating Romans)

Yeah, this is supposed to be a list of how people kept cool before central air, but credit where credit is due. While the Goths were still bashing each others heads in over plots of land, the Romans were busy using aqueducts to run cold water into the pipes built between the walls of their homes and businesses.

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