Thursday, June 21, 2018

Keeping Our Cool

Funeral homes distributed fans to
keep mourners cool and to advertise
The last several days have been unpleasantly hot and humid, but most of us were able to shelter in air-conditioned places.

What we take for granted didn't exist before the start of the 20th Century, although it should be of little surprise that those inventive Romans devised a way to circulate mountain water brought by the aqueduct system inside the walls of the wealthiest Romans' homes. After Rome fell, that technology was lost, and everyone sweltered in summer heat for centuries to come. There was always the hand fan, of course, a personal cooling system in use in China for 3,000 years. Room-size fans--human powered--have existed for about 1,700 years, but only (again) affordable to the wealthiest.

Before Navy engineers came up with a rudimentary system to
cool the room, hand-fanning was the only way to give the dying
President Garfield any relief from Washington's oppressive heat.
In 1837, a steam-powered fan was installed in a British textile factory. This technology was used by Navy engineers to help ease the suffering of President Garfield, as he lay dying from an assassin's bullet in Washington, D.C.'s stifling summer of 1881. A fan blew air through ice-water soaked sheets hung around the President's bed. The invention effectively lowered the room temperature by 20 degrees, but required nearly 425 lbs. of ice daily to sustain the lowered temperature.

Icebox ad showing how to store food.
The upper left of the box is where the ice block was stored*

Electric-powered fans came into existence in 1882, and in 1902, Willis Carrier (sound familiar?) invented the first modern air-conditioning system to ease the strain of hot weather on printing plant machines. It took another 23 years before anyone got the bright idea of using Willis' invention to ease the strain of hot weather on human beings, when AC got its debut in a New York City movie house. Within a decade, public buildings and work places became air-conditioned, but by 1965, only 10% of American homes had AC. Today about 86% of the homes in the United States have air-conditioning, and aren't we glad?

The iceman cometh
Besides hand-fans, our ancestors used architecture to try to stay cool in the 19th Century. Homes usually had a front porch where a person might catch a welcoming breeze, and some larger homes were built with higher ceilings that allowed more air to circulate. In the winter, ice blocks were cut from frozen ponds and stored in a special "ice house" insulated with straw. Usually this was a community facility, and in the summer, people picked up ice as needed or else the iceman cometh. When iceboxes came into wide use in the mid-1800's, a
person might tuck her clothes in the contraption for a bit of a cool-down before putting them on.

John C. Holloway's home in White Cottage
had a small but inviting front porch

In areas of concentrated population, like Zanesville, our ancestors took advantage of water fountains that were no more than large troughs. Men and boys might get some relief from summer heat by dunking their heads, but a respectable woman, sweltering in her corset, could never take such a liberty. She was probably lucky to be restrained by protocol. Cholera, typhoid and dysentery are all waterborne diseases, so dunking your head and face into a commonly used trough of water could be bad for your health.

A History of Air Conditioning
5 ways people stayed cool before air conditioning was invented
Presidential History Blog: The 3 Major Inventions of Garfield's Assassination
A History of the Electric Fan
*Illustration attribution: PD-US,


  1. What a fascinating and informative post. As the daughter of a heating and air conditioning controls tycoon, I especially appreciate the subject matter!

  2. That was a really "cool" blog.