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June 23, 2012 3:27 PM   Subscribe

Arthur Miller describes New York summers before air-conditioning. (New Yorker Archive)
posted by whimsicalnymph (75 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ossem.
posted by Melismata at 3:31 PM on June 23, 2012


"When it's hot like this, you know what I do? I put my undies in the Ice Box!"
posted by Fizz at 3:38 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wonderful. Makes you want to go there as miserable as it must have been...
posted by Dr. Peter Venkman at 3:39 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh gads, no, I definitely don't want to go there. The detail of the clocks ticking among all those people lying on the grass, wakeful throughout the night in the heat that never broke...it was evocative, painted the scene vividly, and is thus horrible. I guess I can imagine it far too well.

I was just thinking today about how grateful I am for air conditioning. The times I've been without it for long periods of time (in high humidity and in cities where most of the architecture just isn't designed to mitigate any of it--as opposed to much of my youth in the desert southwest), it really wears me down to a nub. A dazed raw nerve.
posted by theatro at 3:44 PM on June 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


"People on West 110th Street, where I lived, were a little too bourgeois to sit out on their fire escapes, but around the corner on 111th and farther uptown mattresses were put out as night fell, and whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear."

Worth it just for that paragraph alone.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 3:45 PM on June 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I love this. But now can someone please link to an essay about being really really (delightfully) frigidly cold?

Because I'm dyin' here.
posted by argonauta at 3:47 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


But now can someone please link to an essay about being really really (delightfully) frigidly cold?

Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik. Enjoy the first chapter in audio form. It's worth the purchase and his other books are a delight as well. Cheers.
posted by Fizz at 3:51 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


.... the ice smelled vaguely of manure but cooled palm and tongue.

Sometimes, out walking when it's a reallly cold New England winter day, I have found myself drawing closer to the exhaust pipes of stopped cars for the warmth.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:58 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't help but feel as though we'll end up in a place like this at some point in the nearish future -- or am I being fatalistic that air conditioning will become a luxury most can't afford?
posted by incessant at 4:00 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have not had air conditioning since I moved to Boston (I even avoid putting in window units as much as possible), and it can get pretty brutal even this far north. My first apartment was on the top floor of an old six-floor building, and all the heat from below seemed to collect in my small space. Great in the winter, but the few windows all faced east and didn't catch any of the prevailing wind. Luckily, the lock on the door to the roof had been broken and never repaired, so I would sit up on the rubber roof and read until it got too dark and then take my chances back in the apartment. Never thought about sleeping up there for some reason.

Our current place has many more windows on all sides of the building to allow for a nice cross breeze, but it still gets very hot in here. What I like about it, though, is that it basically forces us to go outside and do something. It's cooler to go for a walk than to sweat on the couch, so we'll walk down to the ice cream shop some evenings or even just hang out on the balcony with a drink. It makes the whole place feel more like a neighborhood than just somewhere I park the car and fall asleep at.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:04 PM on June 23, 2012 [10 favorites]


I think it was Buckminster Fuller or someone, who likened New York City's skyscrapers to the heat radiating fins on an air cooled motorcycle engine. He said the whole city was one big heat radiating system.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:06 PM on June 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've only actually had AC for a small fraction of my life and in our current house we didn't have the wiring to support a window unit until last year and survived without it. Even with it, we only run it about a dozen days a year and mostly rely on fans. I do live right in the city but even though it's at almost the same latitude as New York City, it doesn't have near the density.
posted by octothorpe at 4:15 PM on June 23, 2012


As I sit here in rural Australia on a frosty Sunday morning, wearing leggings and a long-sleeved t-shirt underneath flannelette pyjamas, with socks, slippers and a jacket, wrapped in a sleeping bag, with two heaters running, and I'm still bloody cold... I'm feeling less than sympathetic.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:21 PM on June 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Summer weather in Missouri was like being inside a dog's mouth.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:25 PM on June 23, 2012 [24 favorites]


I just got back from Delhi, and much of what Mr Miller describes reminds me of that heat (and all the people just EVERYWHERE). Really makes me appreciate living in Northern Utah. Yeah it gets hot here sometimes (100° right now) but at least we can escape to the cool of the canyons.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:27 PM on June 23, 2012


We are lucky enough to have windows on almost every end of our apartment, and are set up to get a great pass-thru breeze all year round, but a few years ago my parents-in-law got us a small AC unit for the bedroom, which ended up being sort of a curse, since it takes out the most crucial flowthrough window. It only goes in if it really gets too hot to sleep.
posted by anazgnos at 4:47 PM on June 23, 2012


It's not usually interpreted in this way, but Rear Window is all about what it's like to live in early 50s New York where nobody has air conditioning and everybody has their windows open.
posted by jonp72 at 4:53 PM on June 23, 2012 [10 favorites]


I came to America in 1914...
posted by crunchland at 4:54 PM on June 23, 2012


Yeah...
posted by wallstreet1929 at 5:02 PM on June 23, 2012


I love this. But now can someone please link to an essay about being really really (delightfully) frigidly cold?

I vaguely recall some sort of end-of-the-world Twilight Zone episode where everyone is freezing to death as the Sun has burnt out or something, and it's just so unbearably cold and one character is freezing to death...but then it turns out that he's having a fever dream and he wakes up and it's actually the opposite; the earth is hurtling towards the sun and everyone's dying of heat.
I probably have it backwards but you get the gist.
posted by chococat at 5:22 PM on June 23, 2012


Summer weather in Missouri was like being inside a dog's mouth.

To be fair, they say a dog's mouth has fewer germs.

But you know them; they'll say anything.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:30 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chococat you have it mostly right, but it was a girl (a painter) not a man, and the earth was going away from the sun while she's dreaming about heat (because she has a fever).
posted by emjaybee at 5:30 PM on June 23, 2012


I was lamenting that it is 60 and raining here in Puget Sound today--where's summer?--but infinitely prefer this to 95 and 95% humidity. I can't even imagine what that's like in the middle of ten square miles of concrete.
posted by maxwelton at 5:46 PM on June 23, 2012


He does know that many people in New York City still don't have air conditioning, right?
posted by corb at 5:56 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


"summer" here in Calgary has been 15-20 C and rainy for about 3 years straight. A hot day might be 25 C and dry, and then cool at night. I just want a few warm evenings...
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 5:59 PM on June 23, 2012


"Luckily, the lock on the door to the roof had been broken and never repaired, so I would sit up on the rubber roof and read until it got too dark and then take my chances back in the apartment. Never thought about sleeping up there for some reason."

People just DON'T sleep outside anymore, even if they HAVE sleeping porches; it probably fell out of fashion when A/C came in and, as the article notes, it wasn't very bourgeois. It had never occurred to me until I saw it in a movie, and then I was like, "Ohhhh, THAT'S what all those books meant about sleeping porch." I guess I just skipped over it because it wasn't important to the plot. It's so uncommon these days I think lots of us would never think of it.

My grandfather grew up in the 20s and 30s pretty poor and every apartment they had had a sleeping porch (in Chicago). They usually got 2-bedroom apartments, and his parents would have one, his sisters would share the other, and he would sleep on the sleeping porch in the summer and in the living room by the heat source in the winter. This was fairly common.

Some sleeping porch pictures on older houses. Apartment (1) Therapy(2). I follow a blog called "Ultra-Local Geography" and he digs up old blueprints for apartment buildings in Chicago, and lots of them have sleeping porches, which these days are sometimes screened balconies/porches, and sometimes are open deck-balconies, when I've visited friends who lived in those older apartments. Here's an excellent photo with children sleeping on a fire escape in NYC in 1941, along with a bunch of photos of sleeping porches in L.A.

"He does know that many people in New York City still don't have air conditioning, right?"

He's been dead since 2005, so probably not.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:02 PM on June 23, 2012 [20 favorites]


I always suspected some of the laws around window placement in New York apartments were specifically about per AC cooling. If I leave every window and internal door open there is almost a draft as air gets sucked through from external windows to the windows facing the air shaft. It is almost a stack effect, doors actually slam closed as the air rushes past. If I close one door or window the entire effect is ruined. The air becomes incredibly still. This same effect most likely happens in railroad apartments with windows facing the street and the back, in that case there may not even be any internal doors to block the airflow.

I grew up without AC in my family's apartment. During the day I tried to go to people's houses that had AC, or played in the fire hydrant, or went to the park on the rare occasions they turned on the sprinkler. Some people went to moves during the day and sat through multiple showings just for the AC. On rare occasions we went to the public pool in Red Hook or Brighton Beach. I hated the beach so that was more of a curse. Boys and men still went around shirtless back then, something you don't see much of anymore. I would get beet red with sunburn and people less likely to burn would slap my thighs or back and marvel as i winces in pain, then peel the skin off in big strips when I started peeling.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:13 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


"He does know that many people in New York City still don't have air conditioning, right?": Most of us NYers have something that passes for air conditioning, courtesy of those metal boxes that perch on the windowsill. It's not central air like you get at the movie theater. And many of us don't keep them in place all year 'round, partly to save on the electric bill. I usually wait until it's close to unbearable to bring mine up from the basement (but I am a wee too Protestant for my own good).

Miller's recollections about people sleeping in the park reminded me of the big blackout of 2003, when people were stranded in the city and sleeping on the street. (I happened to be out of town at the time, and I am still a little bit upset about that.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:16 PM on June 23, 2012


I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, for eight years and in Athens, Ohio, for seven. The heat and humidity of the summers made me really unhappy. I figuratively lose my cool when it's that hot, my mind and mouth filling with curses and stunned shock that human beings would ever consider such conditions habitable. I spent most of those eastern seaboard and Appalachian summers inside air-conditioned rooms.

I visited NYC once when it was in the 80s-90s and I vowed never to visit NYC during the summer.

I much prefer every summer verifying first-hand what Mark Twain called the coldest winter he's ever spent!
posted by mistersquid at 6:26 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Miller's recollections about people sleeping in the park reminded me of the big blackout of 2003, when people were stranded in the city and sleeping on the street. (I happened to be out of town at the time, and I am still a little bit upset about that.)

The blackout in 2003 was great. I stayed out all night drinking my way across town in bars and on the street and made my way back home at dawn when it was bright enough to figure out where the hell I was. Without streetlights I managed to get totally lost.

1977 was a different story, that was sheer terror. I was very young but I have clear memories of being huddled around a single candle in our apartment. Everyone was afraid to go out due to the looting and violence.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:27 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I grew up in the 60s. It was pretty cool.
posted by hal9k at 6:31 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


New York summers without AC (I've suffered through a few) are certainly a unique kind of horrible.

Sometimes, out walking when it's a reallly cold New England winter day, I have found myself drawing closer to the exhaust pipes of stopped cars for the warmth.

I used to do this riding my bike to work on really cold mornings... Find a bus and pace it. Those exhausts would heat you right up.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:32 PM on June 23, 2012


I always suspected some of the laws around window placement in New York apartments were specifically about per AC cooling

If you ever go for a tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which is awesome, you'll learn about how some of the construction laws were developed, specifically because of the negatives associated with earlier styles regarding air exchange, fire safety, etc.

Here in the Boston area, there is a classic house form called the three-decker that's of similar vintage to some of those Chicago houses, and also usually provides a sleeping porch, something I'm sure was very profoundly appreciated in its day. When I was a little girl I stayed at my great-grandmother's house in rural Texas a lot, and my designated bedroom was the sleeping porch. That was a beautiful place to sleep.

I loved this piece; it was evocative. But even though I'm not an old-timer, not to the degree Arthur Miller sort of was, there's something I find so nostalgic about heat waves and hot nights. I have never had a house with AC - not as a kid, not as an adult. I grew up in New Jersey, which had the suffocating, swampy heat waves that NYC does, but at least had the benefit of more green space and, where I lived, sea breezes and beaches to cool off on, which we did. But not having AC - and nobody who lived in our towns did, when I was a kid - definitely made people get outside in the summer, which is something I really miss. My parents, for instance, took a nightly walk after dinner through the neighborhood, to cool off. Sometimes we would all go, particularly when we lived a few blocks from the boardwalk, and we'd join enormous promenades of people, locals and people from nearby towns, just strolling slowly to cool off, maybe getting a frozen custard or sno-cone or just a cold Coke to help the project. But many evenings they'd just walk the neighborhood, and then return to sit outside on our porch. We spent almost all summer evenings sitting on the porch, and so did everyone else, and you'd give a little wave or speak to everyone that went by. We would occasionally wander into the quiet, empty house to refill a glass of iced tea or get a bowl of snacks, and then head back outside to sit with feet on the railing reading our books. No one bothered going to bed until late if it was hot, because there would be no sleeping anyway. We slept with box fans pointed at the beds, and that was pretty good. During the day, we swam when we could, ran through sprinklers, sat in the shade, drank lots of iced drinks.

Like backseatpilot describes, this is still sort of the way of life we have in New England when a heat wave hits - like the one we had the last 3 days. Highs in the 90s don't bother me much, but it's difficult when the nights don't cool off. But there is that added, wonderful bonus of sending people outside to get ice cream and walk under the shady streets for a breath of air. During the morning, we draw curtains across every window, take the fans out of the windows, and try to keep the house shady and not pull hot air in. The insulation helps keep it cool. Then at night, the curtains come open again and the fans go back to refresh the whole place with cooler night air. We don't cook hot stuff, we eat cold shrimp or chicken and salad.

Living seasonally has its challenges, and as much as I will definitely be shortly succumbing to a window AC unit for our 2nd floor bedroom, I love not having central air. I love having the breezes and outside sounds and scents waft through the house, feeling the subtle changes in the air throughout a summer day. And tonight, now that the heat wave broke with a lovely thunderstorm followed by clearing, cool air, and rainbows, it's absolutely heavenly.
posted by Miko at 6:33 PM on June 23, 2012 [23 favorites]


This article reminds me of the heat wave my last summer in Germany, where few buildings had AC.

I lived in Germany for nearly four years in my twenties. My youngest son was born there. He was a fat, roly- poly baby, covered in blubber. He still tolerates the cold like a freakin' polar bear. He doesn't do so well with the heat. The heat wave hit our last summer there. He was eighteen months old. I let him wear as little as possible and wiped him down with cold compresses all day.

Every store that sold ice an/or fans sold out of both. My spouse was in the U.S. Army. They were having trouble keeping hydrated while on maneuvers during the heat. The chain of command issued orders: It was okay to have up to two beers a day to stay hydrated (and German beer is stronger than American beer). My ex didn't even like beer, but most of the soldiers were thrilled with this turn of events.

It is different when there is no AC.
posted by Michele in California at 6:40 PM on June 23, 2012


I finally put my window unit back in this week after a few days of record-breaking heat here in Toronto (39 degrees celcius, I think). The thermometer in my kitchen was reading 37 degrees; coming home after work was like walking into a furnace. My apartment has terrible air circulation (its long, and has windows only on one end, in my bedroom, so no cross-currents). With the a/c in, my bedroom gets blissfully frigid but the rest of the place stays at a temp that encourages pantslessness.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 6:52 PM on June 23, 2012


I was living in largely un-A/C'd northern Spain for the 2003 heat wave. We rode the air conditioned subway aimlessly to keep cool and slept outside on the terrazzas when possible, so not much has changed.
posted by jcking77 at 7:13 PM on June 23, 2012


Los Angeles doesn't have the humidity helped push you to the edge, mistersquid, but it does have the drying gritty dusty Santa Ana winds, which Raymond Chandler described so well:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge
posted by benito.strauss at 7:25 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Never heard of a "sleeping porch"; what a neat idea! I've been to a NYC apartment in Astoria that has a corner porch that could probably be a sleeping porch, if those living there were interested. Meanwhile, up here in The Heights, I have been keeping my eyes peeled for open fire hydrants. There haven't been as many as I would like, probably because schools aren't out yet (and there's been some road work that would probably prevent it). I am counting down the days until those kids are out so I can take a shower on every block.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:27 PM on June 23, 2012


maybe getting a frozen custard

I don't have much nostalgia for growing up in New Jersey, but that one phrase, so close in proximity to "boardwalk", certainly evoked some happy memories.
posted by nev at 7:42 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


That was quite beautifully written, thanks for the link!
posted by mapinduzi at 8:52 PM on June 23, 2012


I grew up in the suburbs of Northern NJ, about 35 miles from Manhattan, no A/C but we did live on top of a nice sized hill which afforded us nice summer breezes and temps about 10 degrees lower than driving a mile down either side of our couple hundred feet of elevation. Now in Boston for the last 10 years, we still only place the window units in about every 3rd summer or so, but we've already placed one in this year and it's humming away for it's 3rd straight day right now. A lot of the problem is how high up you are and how long it stays hot. Most city buildings are a pleasure if you're not too high up and it doesn't stay hot for too long. Our place is all brick built in 1928. If you have one or two hot days it stays amazingly cool inside as the building, like a slow heating oven, never really gets up to the outside temps. The downside of that good fortune is that if you have several days of very hot temperatures and then a break in the heat wave, the building takes a long time to cool back down too. That's when you really need A/C. The summers we don't use any A/C aren't devoid of very hot days, they're just devoid of 3-5 consecutive very hot days.
posted by Rafaelloello at 8:53 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I grew up in Houston and until I moved to Jersey City about ten years ago, had never lived in a building without not just air but central air. I made myself heat-sick the first summer before we put in air conditioners (window units) because I really didn't know what to do.

It does help when you build for the climate. Our house in Houston was built in the 20s. Pier and beam, tall ceilings, cross-breeze window placement (partially screwed up by remodeling), nice front porch. With the ceiling fans on, it was tolerable even when the AC went out over the July 4 weekend one year. Comparing that to the 1880s-era building we lived in in Jersey City that first summer made the difference very clear.
posted by immlass at 9:19 PM on June 23, 2012


I lived without AC, for the most part (at least where I slept), until I was thirty. That includes my brief stay in Brooklyn, where I lived in a fourth-floor walkup in Park Slope. Made do with fans and the fact that there was usually an air-conditioned bodega or library to duck into during the day. When I moved down South, our place had AC, and after a few summers there I used to wonder how people got by in Victorian days; quite a few houses had sleeping porches (ours had long since been converted to a laundry room, but there were still windows with screens on two sides to let a breeze through) and I used to wonder if people usually wore togas and only put on those stiff wool outfits for official photos. The seersucker suit finally made sense.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:21 PM on June 23, 2012


The blackout in 2003 was great.

One of the things I remember most vividly about the 2003 blackout was that the sound of the city was vastly different. There was no constant HUM like there usually is. In the winter it's not as bad, but there's still a throb from all the heaters and boilers and ventilation units, but in the summers (especially in August), everyone's AC units are sticking out of windows everywhere (at least,in the village) like little constant white noise fart machines. And when the power went out, it was quiet.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:39 PM on June 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


Seeing the night sky was the best part of that blackout.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:57 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


He does know that many people in New York City still don't have air conditioning, right?

He doesn't know much of anything anymore.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:08 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I met Arthur Miller once, by the way. He spent the entire time staring at my girlfriend. I was all like, you wish. Mr. Monroe.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:09 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


You know, sometimes I think that air conditioning was one of the worst ideas that humans ever came up with. It's a mixed blessing of the same order of magnitude as cars or cell phones. If it wasn't so late I'd have more to say about that, maybe I'll have more to say about it tomorrow.
posted by Scientist at 11:33 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh, a bit of synchronicity here: Just a couple weeks ago I got curious about when people first started making ice mechanically. If you think about it, the technology and even the science to do that is just a couple centuries old. I ended up on the wikipedia article about This guy who actually built the first working ice machine. And actually his plan was to use the ice mainly for AC. He was actually a doctor and had to use ice that had been stored over the winter and shipped from MA (he was in Florida).

What happened is pretty crazy: His machine worked, but apparently there was one dude who controlled the global ice trade. I had known that people shipped ice around but that guy's story is pretty amazing as well, and in fact represents a technical advance on it's on in the 1800s, before him if you wanted ice you had to wait for the winter, pretty much. But he figured out how to ship ice all over the world. Eventually he was selling ice from Massachusetts in Calcutta. Oh and they actually called him "The Ice King"

Anway, the ice king launched a smear campaign against Gorrie's device, which was apparently somewhat leaky and when his financial backer died he couldn't raise any capital to sell the devices. A couple years later, though an Australian did manage to start making ice mechanically.

---
It's kind of amazing when you think about, things that the average person today has that even KINGS went without just a few hundred years ago. Like any healthcare whatsoever. We didn't even have antibiotics until a few decades into the 20th century. The Romans would use water to cool buildings (probably cooled by water evaporating off the surface of lakes), but I don't know if that was commonly used later. And it probably didn't work all that well.

So if you think about it, you could be the emperor of China, The King of England or Ghengis Khan with as much political power and wealth as you could imagine, but before the 1820s or so no matter what you couldn't have ice in your drinks, or even be cool yourself off in the summer. And for a few decades after that if you had ice it had been shipped all the way around the entire world to get to you.
I always suspected some of the laws around window placement in New York apartments were specifically about per AC cooling. If I leave every window and internal door open there is almost a draft as air gets sucked through from external windows to the windows facing the air shaft.
Seems really unlikely to me, since a ton of the buildings in NYC were built before WWII or shortly after.
posted by delmoi at 11:37 PM on June 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


I recall with severe hatred the summer of 2002, which I spent in a third-floor walkup in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a poorly converted industrial loft, with no insulation or ventilation. There was no way to fit an AC of any kind into the huge multi-paned windows. It got so hot that even a fan was unavailable. Couldn't find one for sale anywhere, at least not for a price I could afford to pay back then. As a result I spent the entire summer sweltering at night, waiting for the rare evening when one of my roommates would hook up with a random woman in Alphabet City so I could swipe her fan and live to be yelled at (for stealing her fan) the next morning.

Thinking back, it's possible that the #1 reason I was so active on OKcupid that summer was in a desperate bid to find someone in NYC who had an AC in her apartment.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:46 PM on June 23, 2012


Seems really unlikely to me, since a ton of the buildings in NYC were built before WWII or shortly after.

Very true. My building is certainly "pre-war". I'm sure my building, on 111, would have been there during the time Miller is talking about. I do know that all bedrooms in the buildings have a window, supposedly due to laws regarding window placement. I've got to dig up some history about this, it really is interesting.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:55 PM on June 23, 2012


Ad hominem, did you mean to write "pre AC" instead of "per AC"? I think you and delmoi are actually in agreement: most buildings of the era were constructed to take advantage of the drafting quality of warm air.

I was tickled by Miller's article, as I actually lived on 111th myself back in the 1980s (although hard up by Riverside Dr. instead of Central Park West). My SRO (the only non-scary one I found) had no air conditioning, and because it was cut up, there was no real way of drafting. I mostly spent a lot of time wandering the city in various ways, which was a good education. I also experienced a late night hangout -- after hours, natch -- in the Sheep Meadow, with a lot of very mellow people. I'm not sure that micro-society could have existed without people being mellow, frankly. The walk to and from was a little more fraught.

As to sleeping porches or "three-season" porches, it's a shame they aren't used the same way anymore -- so many of them got windows and aluminum siding and storm doors, and thereby became very awkward extraneous wings on their otherwise well-lined houses. I'm torn by porch "culture", though -- for every super citizen who waves at you and you wave back like small town America, at least around here, you can have two or three who are getting blotto or smoking something illegal or inviting regular visits from gang members in full colors and engaging in threatening stare-downs of regular folks. I think if fewer porches had been sided over and more regular folks did hang out on their own porches, we'd have fewer problems with the cretins and criminals.
posted by dhartung at 12:13 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ad hominem, did you mean to write "pre AC" instead of "per AC"?

Sorry, yeah I meant before air conditioning.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:29 AM on June 24, 2012


Really makes me appreciate living in Northern Utah. Yeah it gets hot here sometimes (100° right now) but at least we can escape to the cool of the canyons.

I've been to NE Utah during high summer many times (Logan if you care). Even tubed the irrigation/aquaduct down from the pass to the golf corse, before they stopped letting people do that.

The heat in northern Utah is nothing like what we get in the Midwest. I'd take a 100 degree day in Utah anytime over an 85 degree day in central IL. It gets so bad that sometimes it feels like the air is too thick to breathe. As we say, it's not the heat but the humidity.

All this nostalgia for sleeping porches and making a bed on the fire escape is interesting, but not for me. I sweat more than anyone else I know. My previous car didn't have air conditioning and the 10 minute drive to work was enough to soak my shirt. Used to curse at people who drove too slow for me to get a decent breeze. Sleeping at any temperature above 90 is basically impossible.

AC is my false idol. Pre-AC I like to think I'd be living as far north as possible, just to escape the thought of heat.
posted by sbutler at 1:57 AM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I haven't had AC since leaving the US in 1997. June 15th marked my 12th anniversary of living in Nice, southeastern France, where it reguarly gets above 40°C (104°F). It's currently 30°C (86°F) in the shade, and feels like a skin-barbecue 35°C (95°F) in the sun, and it's not yet noon. I bought a partially-underground, garden-level apartment for just that reason: all the cool air gets to me, and the 1950's building's metre-thick stone walls ensure that the cool air is pretty cool indeed. It's a very nice 25°C (77°F) inside now.

This is why you see shutters everywhere, too. You open them in the evenings, or even better, you leave them shut and open the windows behind them, that way no one can look in, but you still get a cool breeze of night air. Once it starts heating up, you close the windows and keep the shutters closed. I'm lucky to have a patio with northern exposure, so I can actually keep my northern shutters open during the day, get lots of sunlight, and not have to pay for it in heat.

You wake up earlier on the weekends, knowing that markets start at 7 or 8. Get your shopping done there, passing by the icy stalls of fishmongers. Start mopping your brow at 9:30am as you open the sun-drenched door of your apartment building. Then you stay inside, shutters closed, apartment still filled with cool evening air. Probably take a nap (une sieste in French, siesta, naturally) around 1am, the hottest part of the day. If you forgot to pick up something, you wait until at least 6pm, but the air's stuffy, as if it's been soaked in sun-heat all day. You know the choking evening heat is better than the roasting midday saturation, though.

You don't go to the Mediterranean until 7pm, when the tourists have left and the sun is no longer an outdoor tanning lamp. Its top few centimeters feel like a heated swimming pool, but you know that if you swim further out, to where the currents from the depths start mixing with the top, you'll be able to bathe in a sumptuous chill.

We too eat plenty of summer vegetables and fruit. Drink chilled rosé. Sleep on cool tile floors while an evening breeze drifts through shutters. In southeastern France, traditional tomettes, hexagonal terracotta tiles made from deep red clays in our river valleys, are well-known for being cool in summer and "warm" in winter. There's nothing better than washing your feet after a long day and walking barefoot on their smoothness.
posted by fraula at 2:59 AM on June 24, 2012 [26 favorites]


Delmoi: So if you think about it, you could be the emperor of China, The King of England or Ghengis Khan with as much political power and wealth as you could imagine, but before the 1820s or so no matter what you couldn't have ice in your drinks, or even be cool yourself off in the summer.

I do believe people had ways to store ice before 1820. Storing ice all year round was mastered by, for example, Persians a long time ago using buildings called Yakhchal. It's of course clear that modern technology has provided massive improvements to these techniques and made them available to many more people.

There's also this cute bit from the Wikipedia page for sorbet:
Other folklore holds that Nero, the Roman Emperor, invented sorbet during the first century AD when he had runners along the Appian way pass buckets of snow hand over hand from the mountains to his banquet hall where it was then mixed with honey and wine.
Except cute's not the word if it actually was true and you were one of the runners.
posted by tykky at 3:01 AM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


In Houston before AC, we also had whole-house fans. Would not work for apartments, but for houses they were popular. I've often wondered if they are still used, in places where AC is more optional.

Today it's 99 °F (37.2 °C), 94% humidity, no wind, and no chance of rain. I'm so very glad to have AC.
posted by Houstonian at 3:40 AM on June 24, 2012


The Romans would use water to cool buildings (probably cooled by water evaporating off the surface of lakes), but I don't know if that was commonly used later. And it probably didn't work all that well.

Well, I can tell you this. Last summer I spent 8 days in Pompeii doing an archaeology program...in July. Let me tell you, Naples and environs in July make for the hottest, fiercest summer climate I'ver experienced, and I include East Texas and New Orleans and the steamkettle Midwest and the deserts of the Southwest in peak summer - fraula's term "skin- barbecuing" is an excellent summation of the feel of the midday sun. We did work Italian hours, meaning our day started early in the morning and ended by 1:00 PM, when it became really too oppressive to work. But it did give me plenty of opportunity to experience the "climate wisdom" in the first-century Roman home design. First, the street face and rear walls contained only small slit-style windows, meaning that little hot sunshine penetrated the facade. In the entry hall area is an atrium with an opening to the sky; below it is a small pool, which captures rainwater, and when it's not raining provides a cool moisture to the interior. Coming in off the hot street into the shady, slightly damp and cool atrium is an instant relief. All surfaces are stone or marble, very cool in themselves. At the center or rear of the house is an open courtyard called a peristyle, usually containing a garden with fruit trees and a covered walkway all around. People would spend a lot of time here during the day, getting light, sunshine, and air but staying in the shade of the walkway. The peristyle also has amazing gutters with decorated downspouts, which gather rainwater off the roof and funnel it into a gutter that runs along the side of the walkway into the kitchen, where it gathers into another freshwater pool. I got to be in one of the houses when we had a giant thunderstorm, and the entire water system came alive. It was amazing watching this water adeptly channeling through the house, refreshing and refilling all these cooling water vessels. Because the peristyle is open, it acts like an air shaft and pulls breezes in from all the small windows and the front door openings. And the pools of water in the atrium, kitchen, and peristyle do constantly evaporate and cool the walls. Being inside these houses was pretty comfortable and definitely felt a good 15 degrees cooler than being out in the streets.

Then, too, the Romans had the baths, and there were baths for everybody, including slaves and poor people, at different levels of accommodation. You'd progress through a series of baths, from warm through ice cold, and do this once a day, which must have been very refreshing. And finally, they - and we while there - lived according to Mediterranean hours like fraula describes. Afternoon is for staying out of the sun, pursuing quieter activities, and napping. It's dead throughout the afternoon. People come alive again about 6 and head out to do shopping and promenading and find a place for a very late (by US standards) supper. It makes so much sense.

I think if fewer porches had been sided over and more regular folks did hang out on their own porches, we'd have fewer problems with the cretins and criminals.

Yeah, I think there's a domino effect to it - the fewer people there are inhabiting the streets, the less deterrent there is for the streets to get out of control. A sort of a broken-windows problem. That said, I think this is very neighborhood-based. In a lot of the places I've lived, that hasn't happened to the streets, but still nobody is on the porches, so we've lost the neighborliness without gaining anything much. People just retreated indoors.

We also never had air-conditioning in any of our schools until high school. Our teachers laughed at us when we whined about it, as if having a tolerable temperature in a school building was a ridiculous pipe dream, even though June and September in NJ can easily dwell in the 90s for days and 100+ heat waves happen. It seems to me that just about all schools now have AC.

I do believe people had ways to store ice before 1820.

Oh, absolutely. After a cursory look, it looks like Tudor may have been the king of commerical ice exporting, but making and storing ice for local and household use has been a common practice in the Colonies/early US since well before he was born. New England "ice ponds" are still everywhere. People could pack ice in straw in a home icehouse - outbuilding or part of the cellar - and it would last, remarkably, until August or so. Still, quite interesting to read about Tudor's vision for a global ice trade and how much activity it set in motion as a seconday industry for farmers. It would make a fabulous FPP.
posted by Miko at 5:03 AM on June 24, 2012 [14 favorites]


I'm in central IL, we have whole-house fans. We went one summer with just the whole-house fan, and although we slept in the basement (instead of on the second floor), it wasn't too bad. They're a big selling point in houses here -- they're always in the real estate listings -- because the cost differential is something like 1 cent to run your whole house fan vs. 5 cents to run your A/C for the same amount of cooling, in our area.

Once it's hot and super-humid, though, you're SOL, it doesn't do anything for the humidity.

Our neighbors just cut down a bunch of trees, and I hadn't realized how much their trees did to shade the back of our house in the morning. Our house gets SO much hotter in the morning and the A/C has been running a lot more often in the morning as a result. We never used to have to run it before 11 a.m. or so when the sun is quite high and scorching our roof. We've done a lot over the years we've been here to ameliorate the AFTERNOON sun, which would bake the front of our house (trees, insulating blinds), but I hadn't realized how much we relied on their shade for the back of our house. I'm kinda irate, actually, and there's not a whole lot to be done about it since the shade trees would really have to be in their yard to give us a benefit.

Chicago had some rules about building for cross-currents, and for natural light and air generally, in the pre-war years. I vaguely recall a presentation on this, probably on an architecture tour, and they said that no inhabited part of the building could be "more than 30 feet from light and air" (i.e. windows that opened), which led to tall buildings built in Hs and Us and Ls. The 30 feet might have been for office buildings, but similar rules applied to residential buildings. (211 W. Wacker might have been the example we looked at (google map satellite so you can see shape), but I can't tell for sure.)

Here's a couple of floor plans with "sunporches" (sleeping porches) in "apartments of the better class" from 100 years ago from Ultra Local Geography. And here's a look at the various courtyards in common use in Chicago apartments in the 1920s and 1930s, to provide cross-currents and some light: L-court, S-court, U-court, multi-court, and some charts and graphs about courtyard apartments in one neighborhood; I think the "changing density of Rogers Park" map is particularly interesting.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:04 AM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm in central IL, we have whole-house fans.

Oh yeah! My grandparents had one of these in their house in Texas. It worked quite well and was complemented with only window units in the den and a couple bedrooms.

Reading around, it looks like the very first building codes in the US of any kind had to do with fire safety - spate of brick building in early America. Then in 1867 New York passed the first sort of quality-of-life housing law anywhere, meant to help reduce disease conditions, and that mandated transoms over each interior door (for ventilation). The laws continued to get more specific and prescriptive from there.
posted by Miko at 5:12 AM on June 24, 2012


Ice is civilization
posted by HLD at 7:41 AM on June 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Summer weather in Missouri was like being inside a dog's mouth.

Summer weather in NYC is like the other end entirely. There is nothing on earth short of the zombie apocalypse that could motivate me to be here without an a/c blasting for the entire 3.5 months of hell. Conversely, living in mediterranean spain during the summer is nowhere near as oppressive, due to 01) lack of that horrible urban heat island thingy and 02) house walls upwards of 2 feet thick.
posted by elizardbits at 11:11 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


In Europe, hardly anyone has AC, and we somehow survive without eating manure. But this post and thread are really inspiring, and I'm going to reorganize my apartment to make full use of ideas that were certainly built in when it was built, but forgotten later.
posted by mumimor at 1:14 PM on June 24, 2012


The thermometer built into my car's dash read 104f about 15 minutes ago. I have no idea what the humidity is today, but a solid guess would be in the high 90's. I spent many summers in the northeast and a few in NYC. They were absolute heaven compared to the inferno I'm living in these days. The depressing part is that we're still a good month away from peak heat insanity here, with another two months of horror torture on the other side of that.

As someone who's lived through both this kind of weather and the blizzardy kind, whenever I hear of seasonal depression in the winter I roll my eyes a bit. You just don't hear about it here and I have no idea why. There is no escape. We are all doomed. The end is near. Repent. Repent. Repent, motherfuckers.
posted by item at 3:30 PM on June 24, 2012


On the other side of the country, sleeping porches were a standard feature of dorms at the University of Arizona. It looks like Maricopa dorm is the only one left now with sleeping porches, though they make it clear that "these rooms...are NOT 'porches' and they do NOT have open sides or windows." If I'm remembering rightly, though, they were still open-air rooms in the early 1990s.
posted by MsMacbeth at 5:31 PM on June 24, 2012


The thermometer built into my car's dash read 104f about 15 minutes ago. I have no idea what the humidity is today, but a solid guess would be in the high 90's.

Not to diminish how hot/muggy it was, but the humidity was probably not that high. A RH of as low as 75% would bring you close to the world record dew point at that temperature.

Of course your car could have been reporting an exaggerated temperature if it was sitting in the sun
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 5:57 PM on June 24, 2012


In Europe, hardly anyone has AC, and we somehow survive without eating manure.

Just a note that much of the US sees larger temperature swings and is more often highly oppressive in the summer than much of Europe, particularly Western Europe. A lot of the US is in continental (Chicago, New York) or subtropical (Atlanta, DC) climates, versus a lot of Western European cities that are in oceanic climates. A summer in DC is downright brutal compared to a summer in London or Paris or Berlin.

The parts of Western Europe, such as Rome or Madrid, that do get really hot tend to be in Mediterranean climates, which lack the humidity that make summer awful (compare Los Angeles, where I'm from, where I grew up without AC and was totally fine thanks to the Mediterranean climate).

Of course, both sides of the pond get catastrophic heat waves. But barring these unusual events, it's not really an apples-to-apples comparison.

I may be a little prickly because it is going to be 100 F/37 C here in Chicago on Thursday. Our blizzards tend to hide the fact that we can also get these horrendous heat waves.
posted by andrewesque at 9:00 PM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Gonna disagree with you on the humidity in Rome, andrewesque. We've got the beach 30 minutes away and the foothills of the Apennines behind us, trapping in the stifling summer humidity known as the afa.

While not quite the swimming on land feeling of a soupy Houston summer, it still makes the dry Dallas summers of my youth seem pleasant.

Though after a 10 day heatwave blowing in off the Sahara, today almost seems refreshing...
posted by romakimmy at 3:37 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


When I look and see that the average temperature of NY in the summer - at it's height - is around 85 to 90 degrees, it's hard for me to feel sympathy. I grew up in NE TX, and that's about where we finally decided to turn the AC on. In May.
posted by bradth27 at 5:36 AM on June 25, 2012


In her debut novel, Carrie Fisher had the absolute hands-down best metaphor I've ever heard to describe a New York City summer: "It's like a cough. It's like the whole country came here and coughed."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:59 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Brings me back too. Chicago 1970s when we didn't have central air but we were lucky enough to have ONE large window unit we put in the kitchen. The air wouldn't get to the bedrooms because if you think of the layout as a "T" the bedrooms were on the upper horizontal part. We kept our doors open and we all had seer sucker nightgowns/pjs.

I tried "reliving" those days when I had my first apartment which had no air. It was in the 1990s when people were dying all over the place from the heat. I wanted to stay in my unconditioned apartment out of principle until my parents demanded for me to come home and stay with them for sleeping so I wouldnt' die.

I don't know, no air conditioning to me is a right of passage. My kid (and my husband) are wayyyyy too spoiled with their central air. My husband said his reason are all of those un-air conditioned nights in his apartment as a kid so he wouldn't relive those days if you paid him.

Sissy.
posted by stormpooper at 6:27 AM on June 25, 2012


Mediterranean climates, which lack the humidity that make summer awful

I experienced plenty in Naples last summer. It was worse than any American climate. Today the humidity is at 69%. Morning average humidity is 87% for June; in the afternoon it often drops a little with breezes. Yes, LA's is often as bad or worse, as is NY/NJ's, but it's not really a dry climate.
posted by Miko at 6:48 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lookit here, you can compare with data! Chicago and Rome have roughly the same high summer temperatures, but Chicago is far wetter in the summer and Chicago is much, much colder in the winter.

If we look at NYC and Naples, they have the same high summer temperatures, though Naples gets cooler overnight in the summer; and New York is colder in the winter and, again, significantly wetter during the summer months.

I've been in Paris during a heat wave and it SUCKED BALLS -- it was stifling and dusty and horrible and felt like a heart attack -- partly because there isn't a lot of A/C, but really, the summer heatwaves in the continental climates of the U.S. are brutal. There's a reason A/C is so much more widespread. (It also partly accounts for the historical popularity of cold beer in the U.S.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:02 AM on June 25, 2012


A simple way to think of the US between NYC and Chicago is that it's like Rome in summer and Stockholm in winter.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:29 AM on June 25, 2012


Yes, LA's is often as bad or worse, as is NY/NJ's, but it's not really a dry climate.

I must be from a different Los Angeles. Where I grew up, it cools into the 60s every summer night, the dew point (the most accurate way of measuring human comfort) never gets above 60 F, and there is an average of 0.15 inches of rain the entire summer. LA has 15 inches of rain/year: half of Rome (30 in), 40% of Chicago (40 in), 30% of NYC or Atlanta (30 in). The LA basin can be quite, quite hot in the summer, but the mugginess and humidity are non-existent compared to New York or New Jersey, let alone the Southeast.

LA is not a desert: too much rain, by 5 inches a year. But it's dry in the summer. If LA is wet, then NY is monsoonal.
posted by andrewesque at 9:51 AM on June 25, 2012


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