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