The Heat Generation

So you think it's hot now? Grab a fan and read some warm memories of Texas before air conditioning made us cool.

July 2001By Comments

Odds are you’re settling in to read this article in a stuffy, artificially lit room with sealed windows that banish every wisp of outside air along with the faintest hint of fresh flowers, rain-heavy clouds, or moist earth. Ignoring Nature’s glories, you embrace instead the man-made wonders of regulated temperature, controlled humidity, and engineered breezes. It’s contrived and costly and downright unnatural. It’s air conditioning. Ain’t it great?

Arguably technology’s greatest gift to humankind, air conditioning made us cool. No wonder that adjective has meant “ultramodern” or “excellent” since the fifties, when the air conditioner moved from luxury to necessity. For Texans born before World War II, heat rash and sweat stains are no longer inescapable annoyances (and the iceman no longer cometh). For those of us in our forties or so, the arrival of AC looms large as a childhood memory. I remember the first evaporative cooler my parents bought, in the late fifties, and how my sisters and I would plant ourselves on the floor facing it until our cheeks went numb. (We also discovered that horny toads, the friendly little lizards we commandeered as day pets, became downright sluggish when imported into the cool house and would submit obligingly to being prettified with ribbons or ensconced in dolly beds for a round of horny-toad hospital.) Anyone on the fair side of forty likely has little memory of what it was like when Mother Nature controlled the thermostat. For those younger Texans, and for recent arrivals from more moderate climes, let’s fan through the life-before-AC files to revisit an era when “frigid” was mainly a sexual term and “weather stripping” meant shucking off your clothes for a dip.

First, the overview. Humans have always appreciated the value of keeping cool—and the difficulty. Whereas keeping warm was straightforward enough (just pile on the clothes or the firewood), the opposite concept was considerably more complicated. For millennia ancient peoples like the Romans and Egyptians had to make do with, say, hanging wet mats in the windows or acquiring servants to wave fans. Sure, there was ice in the winter, but no one really figured out refrigeration (the big sister of air conditioning) until the mid-nineteenth century. Even then early uses of AC were strictly industrial: Regulating heat and humidity kept cotton threads from breaking, tobacco from molding, and chocolate from turning gray. By 1867 San Antonio had three of the nation’s eight ice-making plants, and by 1881 Fulton boasted the state’s first refrigerated slaughterhouse, which kept sides of beef fresh while live humans still sweltered on the hoof.

In 1906 a young engineer in North Carolina named Stuart Cramer coined the term “air conditioning,” but personal refrigeration was a long way off. By the twenties and thirties, though, the newfangled cooling systems had become common in smaller commercial establishments such as restaurants and stores, which—along with their suppliers of food, liquor, and cigarettes—relentlessly advertised the “refrigerated air” and lured customers with lines like “Come on in! It’s K-O-O-L inside!” Theaters in particular benefited; patrons no longer stayed away in hot weather because the outside doors had to be closed, and the summer blockbuster supplanted summer stock. Not until after World War II did home cooling become common. In 1955 the New York Times noted that the air conditioner had “replaced the television and the washing machine as the most wanted item by homeowners.”

So how did Texans stay cool before those halcyon days arrived? For one thing, says San Angelo novelist Elmer Kelton, who is 75, “We were conditioned, not the air. Today our bodies never get used to the real climate. Before air conditioning, we had natural defenses—we physically adjusted.” Come summertime, families switched out their wool rugs for straw ones and at night bedded down on sleeping porches, where screened windows on three sides maximized the breeze. And “you fanned a lot,” recalls my mother, who was born in 1926 in Gulf. “One of my earliest memories of going to church is watching ladies flutter those little cardboard fans with a wooden handle and a picture of Jesus on them.”

And—hallelujah—there was ice. Increasingly inexpensive and available, it became a household staple for Texans in the twenties and thirties, as did the icebox and ice pick. My father, now 82, remembers that on delivery days in his hometown of Munday, his mother “put the ice card in the window. It showed the size of block you wanted—twelve and a half pounds, twenty-five pounds, or fifty. All the boys would run barefooted behind the ice wagon and sneak out little chips to suck on. The iceman didn’t care—in fact, sometimes he’d break it off for you.” Recalls Kelton, who grew up on a ranch near Crane: “My father buried an old steamer trunk in sand near the front door. He’d come back from town with a big block of ice and put it in the trunk, then wet down tow sacks and cover it and close the lid. It kept for a few days that way, and we could actually have iced tea.” Texans often rigged their own homemade air conditioner by placing a bucket of ice in front of an electric fan (an invention that, by the way, dates back to 1882).

But still, it was warm. Hot. Stifling, in fact. “There were a lot of everyday phrases you never hear anymore,” says Mary Dubose of Houston, who was born in Beaumont in 1933. “For example, ‘sweat beads.’ Babies and fat people would turn red in the face and little drops of sweat formed on their necks and stayed there like a necklace. And ‘shadetrees,’ said as if it was all one word. Today people plant trees for beauty or to reduce energy consumption, but back then, they were for shading people.”

Inevitably, a place as hot as Texas was bound to rack up some firsts in the people-cooling department. In 1923 Houston’s Majestic became the state’s first air-conditioned theater, and in 1928 San Antonio’s 21-story Milam Building became the nation’s first skyscraper with built-in AC. The latter, a tourist attraction in its day, advertised “year-round comfort” in a sultry city where office workers habitually donned thick wristbands to absorb ink-smearing sweat. A year later G. B. Dealey, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, ordered a customized window unit for his private office from the Carrier Corporation (whose founder, Willis Carrier, is often referred to as the Father of Air Conditioning).

Put on hold during the war, research into home-cooling systems heated up in the late forties. Air conditioning dramatically altered post-war architecture; new housing designs no longer devoted space to tall windows or roomy attics. Instead, scaled-down ceilings and sealed-up windows allowed the temperature to be regulated easily and affordably, and the front porch gave way to the backyard patio. Texas was a major testing ground for such modern habitats. In 1952 the East Ridge subdivision in Dallas quickly sold all of its $12,500 luxury models with built-in AC. The National Association of Home Builders used Austin as a test market in 1954 for window units and in 1968 for central air. Manufacturers convinced housewives that window units were stylish (one design featured an “elegant mahogany veneer”) and assured them that air conditioning kept their houses cleaner, their loved ones healthier, and their own dainty selves sweat-free. Occasionally the mess of installation marred the picture: For example, adding ducts caused a fire in the University of Texas Tower in 1965. Then again, AC work led to the discovery of painted-over murals in Panna Maria’s Catholic church in 1998.

Not surprisingly, car-loving Texas pioneered in the realm of automobile AC. “The worst memory of life before air conditioning,” says Mary Dubose, “is car travel. You had to have the windows down or it was way too hot, and the wind and noise and road dust and grit were awful.” John R. Hamman, Jr., decided to do something about it: In 1930 he commissioned the Kelvinator refrigerator company to design a passenger-cooling system for his Cadillac. Although the Houston businessman was primarily seeking relief from his lifelong hay fever, we venerate him today as the first American ever to air-condition his car. Hamman’s option wasn’t available for regular folks until the mid-fifties, when multiple Texas companies marketed clunky AC units that sat on the passenger-side floorboards (some, weighing more than 250 pounds, went in the trunk). Dallas’ Artic-Kar company, for example, offered the Alaskan, Husky, Polar, Iceberg, and Penguin models. Big D and Fort Worth squabbled over the title of Automotive Air Conditioning Capital of the World until factory-installed AC became standard and the wannabe industry melted away.

The ultimate feat, however, was air-conditioning the Eighth Wonder of the World. Houstonians laughed about which enterprise was more far-fetched, putting a man on the moon or air-conditioning a baseball game, but in 1965 hometown builder and former mayor Roy Hofheinz realized his dream of a fully enclosed stadium that surrounded baseball fans with 73-degree air. (Four years later, Neil Armstrong’s space suit also used air conditioning technology.) The Astrodome was, at the time, the largest space ever to be air-conditioned—41 million cubic feet—a brag that dovetailed nicely with the state’s bigger-is-better persona. However, even the first domed stadium wasn’t the pinnacle of air-conditioned excess. That would be the sixties-era practice, common at HemisFair and Six Flags, of pumping cold air onto visitors waiting in line—outdoors. Nowadays we don’t waste cold air quite so brazenly, but we’re still into overchill; our AC units might as well have only two buttons: “colder than a cast-iron commode” and “off.”

Today Texas is cooler than ever. From home to car to work to lunch and on throughout the day, we move from bubble to bubble of adjustable weather. Some historians and old-timers lament that when we gained air conditioning, we lost a lot of cool things along the way. Is an artificial standard of personal comfort, they ask, worth the disappearance of tent shows and lemonade stands, porch swings and real neighbors? You bet—and surely survivors of uncool Texas would agree. So in conclusion, let me quote my mother—and, no doubt, yours: “Shut that door! I’m not air- conditioning the whole state of Texas!”

Related Content