The modern air conditioner as we know it today was only invented in the early 1900s and wasn’t in widespread use until decades later. But, through every heat wave humans have found ways to counter the high temperatures. Here are just some of the ways that people used to keep cool back in the old days.

Go to the Movies

While the concept of air conditioning was first developed in 1902 by Willis Carrier as a dehumidifier for a publishing house, it was some years until it was used as a way to keep cool in the summer. Due to the expense and the complicated mechanics of installing AC some of the first places where indoor cooling was found was in early movie theaters. Along with the growing obsession with moving films in the 1920s came the very welcome escape from the heat that air conditioned theaters provided. And the theaters often advertised AC as part of their signage!

photo of 1930s movie theater exterior advertising it was cool inside
Via: Library of Congress/ Ben Shahn

Summer Kitchens

Long before AC people had other measures for withstanding the heat. One of the best ways to do this was by simply not heating up the house with everyday tasks. Cooking outside in summer has long been a way to do this and summer kitchens, a necessity of Southern households, were a way to accomplish this. They could be houses or even just huts or lean-tos. They allowed for temporary outdoor food prep areas. This meant that the main house wasn’t taking on the heat of a fire or stove or oven.

historic summer kitchen with brick oven
Via: Library of Congress/HABS

Laundry Often Done Outside

In the days before modern washing machines the hottest water was often used to launder clothes to really get them clean. This meant a day of hot drudgery for the ones doing the laundry, so doing it outside was ideal. Plus, it meant lots of space to process all the clothes as well.

woman in 1902 doing laundry by hand while her baby looks at the camera
Via: Library of Congress/arius Kinsey

Store and Sell Ice

Long before refrigerators icehouses were used to store ice from colder months or even transported ice from colder regions. Even in antiquity ice was stored this way when possible. The ice was cut into large bricks and because they were big, cold masses they didn’t melt right away. Stored in the proper building with insulation they kept for months, making ice cream and cold lemonade possible even without indoor electricity, refrigerators, or freezers.

Not everyone had an icehouse, which is why ice men did a roaring business during the summer months selling ice via cart or even sometimes in smaller quantities on foot.

Historic icehouse in Virginia
Historic icehouse in Virginia. Via: Library of Congress/HABS/Jack E. Bocher

Make Homemade Ice Cream

And what to do with your ice? Make ice cream of course! Even without a freezer, you can make ice cream. Even the Romans had iced desserts, proving that this was possible without modern equipment. The only downside -if you can call it that- is that the ice cream had to be eaten rather quickly in the days before freezers.

women in 1938 making ice cream to sell in WV
Via: Library of Congress/Marion Post Wolcott

Wear White Linen or Cotton

It wasn’t simply a fashion choice but a matter of temperature. Linen is a breathable fabric and the bleached linen would reflect rather than absorb light. Plus linen can last a long time and gets softer with age. Not everyone could afford a whole summer wardrobe in white linen, but for those that could it was a simple way to try and beat the heat. White cotton was the next best thing, but was easier to damage.

President Hoover & Linen Supply Association in 1929
President Hoover & Linen Supply Association in 1929. Via: Library of Congress

Women Might Wear Less Restrictive Clothing

Depending on the time and place some women were able to wear dresses with shorter sleeves and slightly shorter hemlines made in thinner fabrics. However, modesty was still the most important thing so not every women did this.

1910s woman modeling a summer dress with shorter sleeves and hem
Via: Library of Congress/Bain News Service,

Spend Time Outdoors

Breezy structures like gazebos were a popular way to spend the hottest hours. Many homes were not as breezy as they could be since windows were expensive to install and maintain- and they leaked heated air in winter, too. Even some wealthy folks didn’t have houses with tons of windows. A gazebo gave shade and allowed for some indoor activities, but let the breeze (if there was one) to pass right through.

green and white Victorian gazebo
Via: Library of Congress/Carol M/ Highsmith

Travel to Cooler Places

It was not uncommon in the old days to move to a second home for a time during the summer, even for those who were not considered extremely wealthy. In countries where mountain areas offered cooler temperatures they might move there during the hottest months. Shepherds and farmers would move with their flocks to pastures with more grass, which often was a cooler spot. Any place on the water also offered a chance to cool off so people went there to let the water act as a natural air coolant.

historic photo of people visiting Niagara Falls area
Via: NYPL Digital Collections

Go Swimming

Another advantage of being right by the water is to go swimming whenever you wanted, though the swimsuits looked quite a bit heavier (and hotter) than what we wear today.

lithograph of young woman in bathing costume from 1907
Via: Library of Congress

Go Camping

And even if you didn’t have a second home to go to, camping was an option. Long before high-tech gear and waterproof, lightweight tents were common, people went camping. When you live outside you get to combine the advantages cooking outside, being near water potentially, and not being cooped up in a stuffy house.

historical photo of family camping with wagon
Via: NYPL Digital Collections

Sleeping Porches

If all else failed and you couldn’t get any relief from the heat then your house’s architecture might at least allow you to sleep. Sleeping porches were screened in on 2 or 3 sides to let the breeze pass through at night. While the rest of the house might trap heat, sleeping porches were often noticeably cooler by the time the sun went down. If you didn’t have any AC then this was the next best thing.

a sleeping porch at the Sam Rayburn House Museum
Via: Wiki Commons/Michael Barera
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