Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Beating the Heat in History

As some of you may know, New York is in the midst of a heat wave with Poughkeepsie temperatures topping 100 for the first time in nine years. Never fond of air conditioning myself, I thought I would look at some of ways Americans have struggled to make it through the crush of summer heat throughout history.


When temperatures in New York climb into the 90s nowadays, the hum of air conditioners fills the air. Air conditioners were invented in the first decade of the 20th century in Buffalo, New York for industrial use, and they gradually have become staples in American homes until some people won't even consider purchasing a house without built-in central air conditioning.

Prior to this development however, early Americans struggled with the same summer temperatures that plague us annually, and centuries of tradition built in Europe (where temperature extremes were not quite so broad in localized geographic regions) were combined with new techniques for creating comfort.

Europeans were surprised when they first arrived in America. They were ill-prepared for temperatures that could range about 100 degrees over the course of the year. English arrivals in particular were surprised, as in an average year the maritime temperate climate of Britain saw swings ranging only between 30 and 90 degrees. Clothing in particular was based on this climate, and Europeans were not eager to budge on their sense of fashion and decency. They steadfastly stuck by their layers and layers of clothing (often constructed of wool) that insulated their bodies against to moisture of English summers.

Consider Judge Robert R. Livingston above, whose suit includes all of the fashionable neccesities for a gentleman of the era, including shirt, waistcoat, frock coat, breeches, and undoubtedly stockings, all of which would leave nothing but hands and head exposed to the air. Add to this a wig on top of your head, and you're talking one warm set of clothing! None of these pieces could be disposed of in polite company. Being caught without your jacket as a gentleman was decidedly undignified.

I will add nothing about women's clothing but let you use your imagination. The last time I dressed up for an "UnderWhere?" lecture, I was wearing 14 separate pieces of clothing.

But over time strategies were developed that helped people to cope with the heat. Clothing-wise, underwear became very important in this respect. Linen shirts for men or shifts for women were the "underwear" the time. These garments covered the torso and arms and absorbed sweat sway from the body. It's small comfort, and does not really make you feel dry, but regular changes of body linens could help to improve the situation (if you could afford it; clothing was expensive, and having many shifts or shirts was a mark of some wealth). A mid-day change of linen provided a feeling of refreshement that may have been similar to taking a cool shower today since changing your underwear was considered to be the standard ritual of self-cleansing.

The arrival of the Victorian era provided little relief in fashion. For women and men, long sleeves were still required, but for women, the development of the cage crinoline allowed a little airflow under the skirt. Nevertheless, this fashion was highly ridiculed for its impracticality as it took up quite a lot of room and was considered by some to look outlandish.

Lightwieght sheer dresses became popular for women in the middle of the century as well. Made of silk or cotton, these helped to minimize the weight of fabric covering the body without actually revealing too much skin (all that underwear kept you from seeing anything too interesting). Men had few options in hot-weather clothing but wool and linen suits. At least they had finally given up on wigs.

The real key to staying cool in the summer in both the 18th and 19th centuries was clever management of your environment and diet.



Georgian-era homes like Clermont (popular in the 18th century) were constructed with central halls that enabled air flow to cool the home. By opening the front and back doors, a cross-breeze could take stagnant air out of the house. This could be particularly effective in homes like Clermont; seated on the bluffs above the Hudson River, we are often treated to a respectable summer breeze.



This center hallway was then treated as a room instead of just a passageway (as we tend to think of it now). Afternoons could be spent in this location playing cards, sewing, or dining. A large enough hall could even be used for dancing once the night had cooled the air sufficiently.

The hall's lack of windows also made it a cooler location. Although large windows were highly sought-after (and expensive) the single panes of glass magnified sunlight and heat. Consequently, many 18th century homes made use of shutters. Thick stone or brick walls created neat pockets that shutters could be folded into when not needed, but when the sun beat down, the shutters could be closed down to minimize the sun's penetration. This created cave-like interiors that staid cooler, and one or two shutters could be opened when light was needed for reading or other tasks. Windows could then be opened allow the passage of air behind the shutters--although often it let in many bugs and an onslaught of dust.



The shuttering technique remained common through the nineteenth century (seen here in an 1853 watercolor from "At Home: The American Family 1750-1870"), though window covering became more diversified. Louvered shutters and blinds increased in popularity along with shades and curtains (as fabric became more affordable).

Many museums, including Clermont, continue to make use of their shutters to reduce energy costs in the summer or even as their sole environmental control when air conditioning is not available. Although it may seem dark to modern eyes, the reduced or indirect lighting was the way that historic peoples knew their homes.

Sometimes no amount of shuttering could ktep out the heat, and people followed the shade around the house. Furniture was often moved into shaded doorways where families could take advantage of the cooler air. Windsor furniture, like the chair pictured at right, began to be perceived as appropriate for locations where cool was desired. The open back would likely have allowed air passage aroung the body to help dry sweated clothing. In 1765, a New York merchant offer Windsor charis "fit for Piazza or Gardens," and netted hammocks provided locations for afternoon naps in southern regions.


In the 19th century, Victorian homes began to create their own shade, and porches became a common feature on homes. Architecturally, these "outdoor rooms" provided a buffer of shaded, cool air along adjacent windows and could be used as sitting space when interiors were inadequate. Clermont Livingston added a large veranda to the front of Clermont in 1844 (removed by his son in the 1920s).


In 1873 Cecelia Cleveland wrote of her visit to Chappaqua, NY saying, "The music-room is, I think, the coolest and pleasantest room in the house. It is one of the additions built by uncle after he had purchased this house—a large, square room on the ground floor, with curtained windows opening upon the balcony, and upon the old apple-tree." On several other ocassions as well, porches provided she and her family with cool respite when the house was still too hot.


Diets also changed in the summer, not only in response to the changing availability of food, but the changing needs of the body. Cool summer fruits, especially watermelon, offered a pleasant treat. Clermont Livingston recorded eating strawberries, melons, cherries, peaches, grapes, pears and rasberries--all from his own garden in the 1850s and 60s. He also recorded growing both musk melons and Japan melons, which were most likely eaten raw.


Cool drinks were also growing in popularity. The Temperance movement encouraged the consumption of cool water or lemonade. And tea, which had been drunk hot throughout the year in the 18th century, began to be served with ice in at least the 1860s. In 1833 a visitor to the Greek isles recounted staying cool with beverages as well: "We had plenty of soda-water, porter, and ale, which were kept constantly flowing; for the heat was excessive."


In the early 19th century, ice also began to provide relief from summer heat, and a large ice industry began to develop. Clermont Livingston recorded each year the filling of of his ice house to the mansion's south. December 15, 1856, February 5, 1858, and January 9, 1862 all mention the laborious task of cutting ice and hauling it to the subterranian structure which would help to preserve the ice into summer. Amongst other things, the ice could be made into ice cream, a special treat that deserved its own serving dish when the Chancellor discovered the food in France around 1801. The ice cream urn (seen at left) still stands in Clermont's dining room in a place of honor.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's book Farmer Boy, about her husbands childhood in upstate New York, also recounts a story about the children stealing an afternoon making ice cream to cool down on a hot day.

Even more cool foods to grace American tables as the century went on. Ice box pies like key lime and lemon meringue became part of the diets of more and more people. Jello, popsicles, and more followed when refridgeration eventually improved our cooling technology in the 20th century.


When all else failed, travel could provide releif from the heat as well. For city dwellers, getting out into the country was paramount if you could afford it. Both Clermont and Arryl House began as summer retreats from the heat, odors, and illness of cities in the summer. More distand travel could help as well. In July of 1865, Clermont Livingston recording visiting Lake George, Niagra, and New Port, New York. And in the 1880s his grandaughter Catherine began spending her summers in the popular summer retreat of Bar Harbor, Maine. The wealthy developed many seaside enclaves like Bar Harbor (seen at right) and eventually the Catskills where reliably cool evenings offset the heat of the days.


While there are many things I am grateful for living in the twentieth century, there some historical things which seem to always be useful. I'm not willing to give into the temptations of air conditioning most days, and I find it useful to know about the many techniques we have employed over the centuries to get through weather like this. While I can't make as many trips to Bar harbor as I might like, a good dose of watermelon or ice cream (for my health of course!) as always good cures for the heat. Hopefully for anyone else out there who is so techonology-averse as I am, this blog has proven useful!

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