Let’s all take a moment and share a debt of gratitude to Willis Carrier. Willis invented modern air conditioning, and we can thank him for being able to live (relatively) comfortably in 110ºF+ temperatures.
Before Carrier received his first patent in 1914, and before air conditioning became commonplace in the ‘50s, people still had to live in extremely hot temperatures—and try to stay cool and alive. So how did they accomplish that?
Here are just eight ways people beat the heat before A/C.
1. Cave Dwelling
The Native American communities who lived in the Sonoran Desert prior to Europeans settling in flourished even with the hot sun beating down. How did they do it?
Well, the Apache, Hopi, Maricopa, Mojave, Navajo, Southern Paiute, and Tohono O’odham tribes all understood the importance of living in caves. Homes built underground are naturally cooler given their surrounding temperatures.
When caves were not an option they built thick, adobe homes against the sides of mountains and below ground. The dwellings were built on the south side of mountains avoiding the hottest rays from the sun.
You can still see examples of these types of dwellings across Arizona such as Montezuma’s Castle.
2. Window Airflow
Europeans and Americans from the East Coast settled in the desert decades before there was A/C. Those early settlers had to find a way to get through the super-hot summers, and a bit of Victorian ingenuity helped.
Victorian homes were specifically built with airflow in mind. Tall, symmetrical windows were placed in strategic locations to allow airflow to enter the home. This approach has been used for hundreds of years around the world.
An incredible example of this heat-beating architecture is the Rosson House, located in Heritage Square in downtown Phoenix.
3. Covered Porches
At both the Victorian Rosson House and at plantations and homes across the South, long, covered porches provided some shade and protection from the blistering sun.
When the porches were of the wraparound variety, they did more than provide a cooler place to sit. They also shaded windows making for a much cooler living space.
4. High Ceilings
Even today you’ll find homes and retail locations with high ceilings and large fans. The combination of height and fans pull the warm air up and away from people below.
You might immediately think of ceiling fans or stationary fans placed strategically around the home, and those were certainly used before A/C became the go-to cooling option.
However, fans have been used to keep people cool even before homes were wired for electricity.
Manual fans (yes, those worked by human hands) have been used to move air around for centuries. In Egypt, it was the slaves, using palm leaves, and in Asia, intricately designed fans were used for more than just helping Geisha girls look demure.
Today, we continue to use not only electrical but also handheld fans on hot days to keep us cool.
6. Evaporation Methods
Cool water makes for cool people, and since ancient times, we humans have realized this. From modern-day swamp coolers to the Egyptian approach of hanging wet sheets in doorways so that the wind would pass through and cool the room.
During the mining days of the Wild West, settlers would go to bed under wet blankets to stay cool. It may sound like a good way to get sick, but it worked well for them.
7. Ice and Snow
People used to plan well for the warmer months by collecting and storing ice in the winters or collect snow during the summer from nearby tall mountains. The frozen water would be used to cool foods and beverages as well as for evaporation cooling of residences.
Not only did this plan require forethought, it also could be quite expensive. Before refrigeration, ice had to be stored in icehouses and there could be problems if the winter didn’t produce sufficient snow and ice.
8. Breathable Fabrics
These days, our clothes are all about fashion, but before central air people used clothes to stay cool. Linen, cotton, silk, and wool are all natural, breathable fabrics.
Linen, for example, was a staple of Marie Antoinette’s summer wardrobe because of how lightweight the fabric is.
Even today, we can take advantage of breathable fabrics for clothes and bedding. Polyester fabrics may wear well, but they don’t allow air to circulate and reach your body. They make you hotter, sweatier, and smellier in the heat.