In the summertime, most of us go from an air conditioned office to an air conditioned car, to an air conditioned house. Sure, we brave the heat for the brief moments we get out of the car, but our lives are mostly sparred from the heat by the cleverness of our own ingenuity and the invention of air conditioning.
But what if you didn’t have air conditioning? Would you know how to stay cool? How did previous generations do it?
Sure, it wasn’t as pleasant, but they had to beat the heat somehow! In honor of our high summer utility bills, here are 9 ways the old timers kept cool before the age of air conditioning. These tricks all still work today and most don’t cost a thing.
Awnings were on every house including The White House back in the day. They keep the hot summer sun from pouring directly into your windows, thus keeping the house cooler.
Having a cool place to sit where you are protected from the sun is always a joy. Porches are a place where you can sit and not only shoot the breeze, but catch the breeze as it passes by the house. Wrap around porches also provide a big break for the main building by shielding the first story walls from the heat of the sun.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek Proverb
If you get to enjoy the shade provided to you by the wise and kind generations before you, then what better way to keep your children and grandchildren cool than by planting a tree that will live on long after you and provide shade and a cool respite from the summer heat for hundreds of years?
You may scoff at the idea of opening your windows when it’s 95 degrees outside, but that is just what your grandparents did. Windows would be opened as the cool of the evening set in and would remain open all night, only to be closed before the heat of the midday hit. And on those days when it just got too hot, even having the windows open all day to provide some airflow was all you could do.
Cross ventilation was a big part of this too. Having enough windows on opposing sides of the room/building provided a path for those faint summer breezes to pass through the building and cool everyone.
For east and west windows especially, having large drapes helps to keep the direct sun light out of the house. Old timers would strategically open and close drapes and blinds depending on the time of day and position of the sun.
They’re not just for looks. Transoms over top of interior doors allowed folks to close their doors for privacy, but still get some airflow in and out of the room at night.
Whole House Fans
In the south, whole house fans were extremely popular before air conditioning. Here’s how they worked: built into a central location on the attic floor, this massive fan would be turned on for only a short burst in the evening.
The windows in the house would be opened up and then the fan would be cranked up for 15-30 minutes. In that short time, the powerful fan would suck all of the stale hot air up and out of the house through the gable vents while pulling the fresh cool evening air in the house. This gave the house a full transfusion of cooler air before bedtime.
On those particularly sweltering days, sometimes sleeping outside was the only way to catch a little breeze. Sleeping porches typical had windows on three sides and were toward the back of the house so as to provide some privacy. You could sleep comfortably and protected from summer showers and bugs by the roof and screens. Read more about sleeping porches here.
Most people underestimate the power of a fan to keep you cool. With moving air blowing on you, almost any temperature can be made to feel bearable. Plus, the amount of energy it takes to power a fan is so minuscule compared to an air conditioner. Crank up the fans and give the AC a rest.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.