A world before air conditioning

Published 5:03 pm Tuesday, September 4, 2018

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a repeat “Short Rows.” It was published in July 2002

A host of inventions changed history dramatically during the 20th and early 21st century, but few of them more so, I believe, than air conditioning.

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The modern world couldn’t exist without A/C. Modern electronics relies on climate control and large office buildings would be impossible to occupy without climate control. And when the temperature really soars, the absence of air conditioning can become a significant safety issue, particularly for the elderly.

Having worked in an air-conditioned office for most of my adult life, and having more recently installed AC in our old farmhouse, I wouldn’t want to live without it. And I’d bet that few of us would, particularly during weeks like this one.

Nevertheless, I think air conditioning has had some negative social effects, the biggest being our insulation from nature and each other. Because of A/C’s comforting coolness, we miss a lot that’s going on in the world outside. It’s out there that doves call from the tops of tall trees. There too do we find the sound of cicadas, and though rare in recent years, the occasional call of a whippoorwill. By being outdoors, particularly as the day ends, you can appreciate those sounds.

Before air conditioning, the sounds of summer were even apparent from indoors. Back when the windows were open and only screens separated us from our yards, there was much to hear. An owl has long inhabited, secretively, an oak tree in our yard. We used to hear his hoot at night. But once air conditioning drove us indoors, the closed windows and running compressors place a wall between us and that outdoor environment. We don’t hear the owl anymore.

Back before air conditioning, evening activities were often out-of-doors. As a child, I often visited aunts and uncles on their farms in Surry. My Aunt Beck and Uncle Ray would take a quilt and pillows into the yard and lie on their backs and look at the stars. That’s it, nothing more. Just lie there and look, hoping to see a shooting star, naming the constellations they knew, and wondering at those they didn’t.

I’d lie there with them, my mind way out there in the universe somewhere (there are those who think it still is), until I fell asleep.

At home, we spent many evenings outdoors and on the screened-in porch. Screened-in porches were the living rooms of summer. You ate there to avoid the heat of the kitchen, and sat there in the evening to avoid the mosquitoes and the build-up of heat in the house’s interior. A single oscillating fan stirred the air, but the only real relief came from an occasional thunderstorm that cooled the tin roof and dropped temperatures a few degrees.

The children’s bedrooms were upstairs in most farmhouses, and they were comfortable for about half the year — spring and fall. In the winter, they were frigid and in the summer, they were ovens. During particularly hot spells, we would haul quilts downstairs to the front hall, which had doors facing west and south. If there was any breeze to be had, it was there, and even if there wasn’t, downstairs was probably 10 degrees cooler than upstairs. So there the three of us would sleep in what we considered relative comfort.

Air conditioning has changed urban lifestyles as well. In towns, it has reduced the contact between neighbors. Town folk, who sat on front porches to avoid the heat, talked with neighbors who were out walking to do the same thing. Now, if you do walk in town, you rarely see anyone on a porch. They’re inside where it’s cool. In fact, most porches today are just decorative. Nobody expects you to actually sit on them, and housing setback rules in subdivisions are generally too great to facilitate much of a conversation from the sidewalk (if there is one) anyway.

None of us would want to return to a pre-air conditioned era, but there’s little doubt that freon has left it’s mark on more than the earth’s ozone layer. Coupled with the way we work, the way we communicate, and the way we entertain ourselves, it’s helped to make us strangers to our neighbors and to the natural world of our own backyards.

But for now, the heat outdoors is blistering, and most of us will wisely reminisce from the comfort of a cooled indoor environment. The owl’s hoot will just have go unheard for another month or so.