Florida’s Sweltering Life Before Air-Conditioning

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When the Florida sun beats down and the temperature reaches the 90s, you can thank a fella named Willis Carrier for the air conditioning that makes life in Florida bearable.

To a large extent, he’s why we can walk from our air-conditioned homes to our air-conditioned cars to our air-conditioned workplaces without being drenched in sweat.

Well, almost. On the hottest days, walking through a parking lot can soak a shirt or blouse. Even now, walking any distance in summer can cause my shirt to stick to me, and I must change shirts at least twice a day. When Hurricane Wilma struck in 2005, I had a brief taste of life without A/C. After just two days, when our bed sheets were wet with sweat, a friend took us in. And that was in October! Never mind the summer. All of this raises the question: How did people here stand it before air conditioning? Well, it was a different culture for sure. The constant heat was a reason stereotypical folks in Old Florida walked and talked more slowly than folks in the north. And the heat controlled a lot of what they did. Smart builders built homes with deep, overhanging eaves that extended far enough to shade the windows from the sun. High ceilings allowed heat to rise, making it slightly cooler below.

Opposing windows allowed the relief of a cross breeze through the house if there was a breeze at all. Smart folk, if they could, planted trees to the east and west of the house to offer shade from the arc of the sun. Some had “sleeping porches,”

A screened-in porch that might have been cooler with just the slightest nighttime breeze. (In big city apartment buildings – New York and Chicago – people slept outside on fire escapes.) There are accounts, if they’re true, of folks hanging wet clothes in doorways on the theory that air blowing through them would have a cooling effect. It’s said that some who had refrigerators first would put bed sheets or even underwear in the refrigerator to cool them. The heat was a reason some folks took midday naps, to escape the hottest part of the day. By any measure, life in the heat of the summer must have been just miserable. You can imagine that many Floridians were, shall I say, pretty stinky. The heat created a culture that’s been long gone – one that might have brought neighbors closer together, at least to know each other. You might call them “porch people” who sat on their porch to escape the stifling and stuffy heat inside.

A lot of family business was done on the porch, and, by golly, it’s widely reported that people actually talked to others nearby and those just passing by. A lot of music was played and heard from those porches. Those of us born post-A/C have no cause to even think about Florida life before then. The fellow I mentioned – Willis Carrier – created a functioning air conditioner of some kind back in 1902, but it wasn’t until 1951 when window A/C units were introduced. Central air conditioning systems came along in the ’60s. (Movie theaters were sometimes the first place in town to have it, so people fled to the movies just to keep cool.) It was about 1970 when a majority of Florida homes

became air-conditioned, and the Florida population soared. In 1950, the population here was 2.7 million. By 1960, with some air conditioning, the population increased to 4.9 million. In the ’70s more homes had “central air” and the population grew to about 19 million today. Today’s Florida is possible only because of air conditioning. Without it, we’d all be likely wearing sweaty T-shirts and sitting on a porch at night, hoping to catch a slight breeze. More likely, we wouldn’t be here.

Had Willis Carrier not done what he did, someone else most likely would have figured out the engineering, but who knows when? So when I turn on the A/C these days, I might think of Willis. And I won’t have to go searching for the slightest breeze.


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