The Daily Courier Logo
Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
4:08 PM Fri, Sept. 21st

How did they survive the heat before air conditioning?

It's hot. We do live in Arizona's high desert, so that's to be expected. I'm not a fan of extreme heat, especially with high humidity, but my sister-in-law, Dolores, thrived in it...the hotter, the better. If the temperature dropped below 80 degrees, she was freezing. They moved from Prescott to Lake Havasu City after Dick retired, just so she could stay warm. Started me thinking about how people managed to survive extreme heat in the days before air conditioning.

Surprisingly, some of the cooling methods used in ancient times were still utilized during the 19th Century. Ancient Egyptians hung wet mats over their doorways employing a method similar to today's evaporative coolers. Early settlers suspended wet sheets on their sleeping porches to keep cool. Some would sleep in wet sheets, although I'd think doing so would feel uncomfortably clammy. Ancient Roman emperors spared no expense importing snow from nearby mountaintops, although it is unclear whether it was to solely cool their villas or chill their drinks. Middle Eastern architects built wind towers to funnel air downwards, providing fresh air on the lower levels. By the 16th century, hand fans came into use. Imported from China, they became an important fashion accessory, and even Queen Elizabeth I is carrying a

hand fan in many of her portraits.

Passive solar design is not new. Early architects developed techniques to retain heat in the winter and maximize shade in the summer. Anasazi cliff dwellings are a perfect example. So is Montezuma's Castle. Their secret? They chose south-facing overhangs which let sun in during the winter, and shaded their homes during the summer. South-facing windows and porches are still a good idea. Early settlers in the Great Plains built dugouts that, because they were underground, were easy to heat in winter and keep cool in summer. If you had visited your Great Aunt Tillie back in 1879, you may have found the family spending sweltering nights on the roof or a sleeping porch. Unless you're way out in the country, sleeping on a roof may be difficult today.

Types of windows made a difference in the temperature, too. In early Arizona, houses most often contained double-hung windows. To cross-ventilate, bottom sashes of the windows on one side of the house were opened, followed by the top windows on the opposite side. The air flowed

through the bottom and carried hot air out the top. Pretty effective system. You would probably have the top windows open in the kitchen to pull out the heat. Persons of means may have built a separate kitchen to keep smells and heat out of the house. Most settlers came from all over the nation and the world. The type of kitchen and home they built usually reflected what they were accustomed to. Thinking about the early inhabitants of our region, whether Paleo-Indian, prospector, or pioneer, a swell of respect emerges for those who braved hardships and Arizona heat so that we have a great place to live.

Until next time.