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Life Before Air Conditioning, Or “When It Was Sweaty”

What Did People Do Before Air-Tro?

air conditioning, ventilation
Life without HVAC was pretty uncomfortable for city dwellers in the summer before Air-Tro. (Illustration from COOL: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything by Salvatore Basile)

Summer is almost here, and the hot afternoons are only getting warmer as the summer days go by. Anyone who has come from the oven-like outdoor conditions into the cool refreshment of an indoor room can tell you that air conditioning is a lifesaver when July and August hit, especially in Southern California.

Indeed, studies of economic growth across the nation show that HVAC provided the seasonal livability that the hottest states in the Union needed to expand and thrive. No one can work, let alone think, when it’s 100 degrees outside and close to it inside.

And yet, as hard as it is to imagine a time in the universe when Air-Tro wasn’t the leader in indoor comfort systems for the San Gabriel Valley and beyond, that world did exist, once. What was it like?

Living Underground Was Man’s First HVAC System

According to historians, people developed multiple ways to handle the suffocating heat of the summer months. Some of these techniques have endured to this day, while others have faded into history.

The earliest way for our ancestors to stay cool was by living underground. Who hasn’t noticed how much cooler a basement or cellar can be, even on the hottest days? Anthropologists say that cave dwellers of the past enjoyed temperatures in the 50s year round within their underground homes.

From Shotguns to Dogtrots: Indoor Ventilation Was Everything

Once we moved from caves to constructed homes, the desire for indoor comfort remained. As Jonathan Hogg, associate at Ferguson & Shamamian Architects describes it, the idea of cooling a house in hot climates is nothing new—there are traces of cooling even in ancient Egypt through the use of courtyards to promote air flow through buildings. “With a significant cross draft created from thoughtful placement of doors and windows,” he says, “air circulation could provide essential summertime relief.”

According to Hogg, one can still find many creative examples of this kind of design in the South, where temperatures were otherwise stifling much of the year. Shotgun houses, popular in Louisiana and the South, were constructed to be only as wide as one room, allowing windows and doors to provide maximum ventilation.

So-called “dogtrot houses,” a style of ventilated home that likely originated in the southern Appalachian Mountains, could be found throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, and the low country of North Carolina as well as Louisiana. These were constructed to allow for strong cross ventilation with the addition of a large breezeway down the middle of the house. Strategically planted shade trees were also critically important for keeping the blinding sun at bay.

Sleeping porches were ubiquitous throughout the 18th and 19th century, in order to take advantage of more comfortable evening temperatures without subjecting oneself to the onslaught of dangerous mosquitoes and other nighttime flying insects. Even our local Pasadena landmark, the Gamble House, features three second-floor sleeping porches along with multiple windows and breezeway openings that allow for plenty of cross ventilation.

Hot Child in the City : You’re Not Kidding, Back in 1850

Unfortunately, these innovations usually applied only to those who lived in country houses, rather than the city. Urban dwellers had few such options, with only the rooftops providing a place to cool off during the evening hours.

According to Salvatore Basile, author of the nonfiction book COOL: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything, “”A lot of people would head for the roofs of their buildings, where they would probably sit all night and try to get a little sleep.”

Judging from the art of the time period, it must have been pretty miserable. Luckily, today things have changed. A 2007 study showed that more than 86% of households in the United have some form of residential air conditioning. Even Europeans, long resistant to the idea of HVAC, have embraced energy efficient air conditioning technology. With work productivity and better health associated with cooler indoor temperatures, who can blame them?

Don’t get hot under the collar this summer. Call Air-Tro instead. Our licensed, certified HVAC consultants can help you identify the right air conditioning system at the right price for your home. Call us today at (626) 357-3535.