What Was Life Like Before Air Conditioning Systems?

It can be hard to imagine a hot Florida summer day without the cooling effects of air conditioning in our vehicles, homes, and work. Yet, for practical purposes, air conditioning systems as we know them today have not really been standard comfort for that long.

What was life like for people who lived in Florida before homes had air conditioning? Let’s take a look back to see what events helped pave the way for modern air conditioner systems. Then we will look at what methods they used to stay cool and survive the heat.

Guy Sweating

The Mid to Late 1800s

A lot was going on in the mid-1800s. To begin with, Florida went from being a territory of the United States to becoming an actual state on March 3, 1845. Florida was the 27 th state to become part of the growing and expanding U.S.

In 1851, Floridian Dr. John Gorrie was granted a patent for the first-ever ice-making machine. The machine would start to produce ice commercially in just a few short years. His invention would also result in a new appliance for the home: the icebox.

Another new invention that came about in 1882 was the invention of the electric fan. While fans had been around for quite some time, they had to be operated either manually, using steam power, or by burning oil or kerosene.

Old Fans

The Early to Mid-1900s

The first air conditioner was invented in 1902 in New York by engineer Willis Carrier. Mr. Carrier was looking for an effective way to remove humidity from a building used to for publishing. Inadvertently, his invention not only solved that problem but also created artificially cooled air to help keep workers cool, too.

In 1904, those attending the World’s Fair in St. Louis were in for a new treat: the concept of indoor cooling. The Missouri State Building was cooled using Mr. Carrier’s invention.

Mr. Carrier redefined his invention in 1922 when he developed and created new centrifugal chillers. These new chillers improved the efficiency of the air conditioner, while at the same time reduced the costs to build cooling systems.

In 1928, chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants are synthesized at General Motors by Robert McNary, Thomas Midgley, and Albert Henne during a project for Frigidaire. The result of their efforts was the creation of the first non-flammable refrigerant chemicals that could be used in refrigerators and in air conditioners.

Old Air Conditioning

Frigidaire released the first cooling units for rooms in 1929, largely thanks to the creation of CFCs. General Electric also designed their own cooling units and built 32 of them between 1930 and 1931.

In 1931, Frigidaire expanded upon its AC production and developed the first-ever central cooling systems for homes. In the same year, two inventors, J.Q. Sherman and H.H. Schultz, filed for a patent for window air conditioning units, which were released in 1932.

The creation of a low-cost window air conditioner unit occurred in 1947, thanks to engineer Henry Galson. That same year, 43,000 of these new units were sold to homeowners.

The Mid to Late 1900s

Advances in air conditioning designs continued to improve in the mid-1900s. New homes were being built with central air conditioning systems . The prices on window units continued to drop, allowing people with older homes but no ductwork to also cool their homes.

In the 1960s, most homes had either central air conditioning or window units to help stay cool year round. By the end of the 1960s, people were starting to migrate to new areas of the country. Two of the states that saw the most population growth during this time were Florida and Arizona.

Then the energy crisis of the 1970s hit. The U.S. Department of Energy developed different programs that required energy improvements be made in appliances, including air conditioners. Since that time, improvements have gradually been made to make air conditioning more energy efficient.

New Air Conditioning

In the 1990s, concerns over greenhouse gases like CFC began to become more mainstream. Fortunately, other synthetic coolants were able to be invented that are eco-friendly and still help keep people’s homes cool.

By 2000, air conditioning units being built were more energy-efficient and eco-friendly compared to units built in 1990. On average, the units built in 2000 were as much as 50% more energy efficient. These improvements have continued through today, with 2018 units being more energy efficient compared to models built in 2008.

How People Stayed Cool Without Air Conditioning

As we saw, the widespread of use of air conditioning by homeowners did not really start to happen until the 1960s. Even though air conditioning was essentially available since 1930 for homeowners, it was still an expensive luxury most people could not afford. Instead, they turned to other ways to stay cool.

Homes built during the mid-1800s to mid-1900s were designed differently. One key feature was the use of high vaulted ceilings. On hotter days, the warmer air would rise and collect at the ceiling level and go out vents or windows. By having higher ceilings, the air below would be cooler.

Another feature found in homes during this time were windows on opposite sides from each other. By opening windows on opposite sides of the home, it created a natural breeze and air flow. In two-story homes, people would open all of the upstairs windows to create air flow and allow the heat from the lower floor to escape.

Patio with Table and Chairs

One key feature found in homes from this period were wide, long, and covered front and back porches on the north and south sides of the homes. The porches provided sufficient shade from the sun and were much cooler than staying indoors on hot summer days.

Homeowners also planted trees on the east and west sides of the home to provide shade. Mature trees would help stop direct sunlight from shining into the home and help keep it somewhat cooler inside.

In the evenings, it was common for people to sleep downstairs, if they had a two-story home, because the upstairs bedrooms were too warm. In homes with basements, these were used more frequently in the summer months since they were naturally cooler.

Aside from how homes were built, people became resourceful to escape the heat. People would go to the movies more often in the summer as most theaters in the 1920s and onward had central air conditioning. They could enjoy watching the latest Hollywood films in the cool indoor air and get a brief reprieve from hot summer days and nights.

In the 1920s, the prices of electric fans dropped and were much more affordable. Many homes started using window box fans and ceiling fans to help create air flows to cool the indoor air.

Another effective cooling method was to make a swamp cooler using the scientific principle of evaporative cooling. People would hang up wet sheets and clothing inside the home. As air blew on it, either naturally from a cross breeze in the home or from fans, it would cause the water to evaporate into the air and lower the surrounding air temperature.

People also would order extra ice for their icebox and place one block into a steel tub. They would set up a fan next to the tub and turn it on. As the ice melted, it released cold air. By using the fan to circulate this air in the room, it essentially became an air conditioner thanks to evaporative cooling.

In addition to these methods, people would take sheets and clothing and place them in the freezer to cool them down before using them. Some people would even freeze wet sheets before hanging them up as part of their indoor swamp cooler to make the cooling effects last longer.

In the 1950s and the 1960s, attic fans were very popular. These types of fans were also referred to as whole house fans because they were installed in the attic. They would suck up the hot air out of the home and vent it outdoors through the attic. Even after central and window air conditioning became more standard, attic fans were still used to help remove hot air from homes.

Eventually, as air conditioning systems became more affordable, people did not have to worry about coming up with creative ways to remain cool on hot summer days. The only time they would have to worry is when their air conditioner stopped working.

Air Conditioning Technician Working on Job

How to Stay Cool Year Round Today

Homeowners today rely on their air conditioning systems to stay cool year round. Even in the middle of winter in Central Florida, we can have periods of heat with temperatures in the upper 80s and low 90s. One mistake homeowners make is not performing semi-annual maintenance on their home’s heating and cooling system.

Skipping maintenance is not good because it can lead to unexpected breakdowns and emergency service calls. In addition, systems that are not well-maintained have a much shorter lifespan and have to be replaced more often.

To ensure your home remains cool and you do not have any surprise problems with your home’s air conditioning, please feel free to call Air Rescue at (813) 612-5600 to schedule preventative maintenance today!

We also offer heat and air conditioning repair services, new HVAC system installations, air duct cleaning, repair and replacement services , and more for homes and businesses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and the surrounding areas.

Sources

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/fan_(machine)

2. https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-air-conditioning

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/air_conditioning

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