A few weeks ago, I heard a report on the news that June was the hottest month for Earth since records were initiated in 1880.
As I write this column, I have heard another report indicating that July would be hotter than June thus making it Earth’s hottest month on record. You know that these temperatures were felt here in our area as it was hot — extremely hot.
A focus on hot weather is a trip that I have taken on several occasions in the past. But, because of the brutal temperatures recently, I decided to again take a look at how we survived those dreadfully hot days of summer without air conditioning, back in the day.
Interestingly, in the days leading up to writing this column, I asked each millennial that I encountered if they were around before air conditioning. The vast majority looked at me in a way that suggested that they had no understanding of the pre-air-conditioning era. Today’s millennials seem to believe that air conditioning was always with us. But, many of you have vivid memories of the period before air conditioning.
In speaking with one of my close friends regarding how we attempted to avoid the heat in the past, he immediately resurrected memories of the hours spent outdoors in the evening or at night. If you lived in a rowhouse, you sat on “the stoop.” If you lived in a large rowhouse or the popular semi-detached homes, you sat out on the porch. Whether it was the stoop or the porch, you sat outside telling jokes, war stories or gossiping until you were tired; so tired that going into the hot house really did not matter because you were ready to fall asleep.
I doubt seriously if the porch is a desirable alternative for dealing with this summer’s heat and its challenge of surviving in our neighborhoods today. As you know from recent news reports, just surviving in the city walking around and not being out on the porch today can be a real challenge. When I think of spending hot summer evenings on the porch, my mind always goes back to visits from my father’s brother, who lived in White Plains, New York. My uncle found the heat to be so overbearing while visiting that he would spend the entire night sleeping on the front porch. For those that grew up in housing projects the roof was an option for addressing the heat. Whether it was the rooftop, stoop or the porch, you may recall that there were fierce battles with mosquitoes. There was no lotion to protect your body so most of us turned to the so-called, “Chinese cigarettes” that we would light and hold in our mouths to keep the mosquitoes and other bugs away. Chinese cigarettes were effective in the fierce battles we had with mosquitoes. It may be my imagination, but mosquitoes, back then, seemed to be more abundant and better equipped for battle than mosquitoes today. Since there was no ointment to keep them away, nor was there a “bug whacker;” Chinese cigarettes provided major relief, from mosquitoes, back in the day.
A couple of Sundays ago as I headed off to church, I had no concern about being cool during worship service with the extremely high temperatures. After all, my church is air-conditioned. But, many churches are not and in the past, none of our neighborhood churches were air-conditioned. When I was a little boy, my family and I arrived at church and immediately grabbed one of the cardboard fans, the type usually given out by funeral homes; we fanned throughout the church service. Back then, there was no dress down church services. The men struggled with the heat in their suits and ties while the woman wore dresses and suits as well as nylon stockings. Hats and gloves were not unusual even in these hot temperatures. The fan was our only salvation! I can still see some of our sisters fanning away as they became deeply involved in the sermon which lead to them “getting happy” as they perspired profusely. In those days, one could not even look forward to getting outside and into their automobiles because most automobiles did not have air-conditioning. In fact, I knew of no one that had an air-conditioned automobile when I first started driving. So, what did we do? Some of you will remember those small vent windows next to the front and rear windows in an automobile. The windows would be pushed open on an angle so that air would be directed into the automobile as the automobile moved down the road or highway. Later, when air-conditioning was introduced in automobiles, it was “an extra” and not standard equipment. I checked and discovered that you can purchase an automobile today without air-conditioning, but riding in an automobile that has no air-conditioning is an experience that should remain, back in the day.
Do you have an electric fan in your home today? Well, many still use electric fans today but fans tend to be backups rather than the main source for cooling one’s home or a room. Fans have been slowly replaced with window units or even central air-conditioning.
Back in the day, whether you lived in the housing projects, a rowhouse or a semi-detached house, there was usually one electric fan. If you stayed inside, everyone gathered around that one fan to stay cool. Do you recall that some families purchased a block of ice and placed it into a large container with an electric fan blowing over it to provide even more relief?
Some families were fortunate enough to have a window fan that blew air in and drew hot air out once the fan settings were adjusted. You had arrived, back then, if your family had one of those fans. If the fan your family owned was a small box fan made to sit on the floor, it often ended up in the window. Some of you may recall instances of these fans falling out of windows. As your memory carries you back to those days, you may also remember the type of window screens used in practically every home, back in the day.
I am not referring to screens in storm windows or new windows with built-in screens, I am referring to those old adjustable screens that could be removed from the window; the type I have occasionally seen at yard sales. These window screens had wood frames and some were no more than 8 inches wide. If you are familiar with these screens, you must have wondered how much air really came through those screens. Someone reminded me that they were more for keeping out the bugs than for bringing in cool air. Those without screens were often observed hanging out of the second-floor window as a way to cool off. While this may have been dangerous and provided limited cool air, it had the advantage of providing information on all that was going on in the neighborhood. If sitting in an open window was not the thing for you, then perhaps a ride to Fairmount Park to sit on a bench, stretch out on blanket or simply sit in a car with the windows open was your choice. It was safe and the air was cooler than in the heart of the city, back in the day.
Each time, I have written about hot weather I tell one of my favorite stories about a cousin’s novel way of staying cool during hot weather in the past. Although it was many years ago, it remains as funny today as when it occurred back in the ‘50s. While no one in the family knows for sure how long this had been going on, it came to an abrupt end when his mother came home from work early on an extremely hot afternoon. She discovered my cousin, sitting in front of the refrigerator, door wide open, with his feet propped up in the refrigerator. This was the last time my cousin used this technique to stay cool.
There were a few other things we did to stay cool in the past. Some people stretched out on the floor. While I have no experience with this technique, I am told that the linoleum was always cool. Some of you must recall the “cellar.” Even though it was not a finished basement, trips down in the cellar were frequent as this was usually he coolest place in one’s home. Turning on the fire hydrant and getting totally under it or simply putting your feet in the water, as it ran down the street, were both cooling things to do. Or, you made that long trip to Gustine Lake, League Island or Kelly Pool. Those old-fashioned snowballs, like today’s water ice, were also extremely popular back in the day. The snowball gave some relief to the heat only for the time it took to finish eating it.
Using an umbrella as a way to protect oneself from the sun is a method still used today. It helps a little. The old standby of pulling the window shades down to keep the sun out is still a suggested practice today.
As this is the first Sunday of August, I suspect that there will be more scorching days before the summer ends. Thus, for those of you that do not have air conditioning in your homes, places of worship, automobiles or other places and do not want to frequent malls or bars to get away from the heat, perhaps some of the examples in this column may bode well for you in providing relief.
Perhaps if you borrow some of the practices mentioned in today’s column, they may help to keep you cool today as they once did for our grandparents, parents, other family members and many of us, back in the day.