living without air conditioning – could you handle it?

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    So many folks are using their air conditioners again that we lost power for a bit tonight. That reminded me to write down about how life was before air conditioning was available for houses. Now it is uncommon for someone not to have it, and I do like having it, but since no power = no air conditioning it is good to know the old timey ways and means of how to live in 90+ degree heat and still get done what needs doing.

    1. Clothing: naked is not cooler, and you will just get a bad sunburn and lots of big bites (just look at an episode of Naked and Afraid for proof). Loose is cooler, white reflects the heat and does not attract those evil ‘skeeters’ quite so much as dark, tight clothing.

    It was a staple of my childhood wardrobe to have a loose fitting, long sleeved, white, man’s shirt, preferably 100% cotton. Get a really big one, the cheap ones nowdays shrink the first time you wash them in hot water. If you cant find cotton, get as high a percentage of cotton as you can. The long sleeves are for sunburn protection (I also grew up before sunblock was readily available) and loose ones are easily rolled up or down as needed.

    Pair with with a loose pair of shorts if you want tan legs. Culottes are even cooler as they are looser. The coolest skirts are circle or half-circle skirts. They also allow better freedom of movement if you are physically active. Again, white is coolest, but if you are like me white pants or skirts get dirty very fast so I often substitute khaki in a light weight fabric. Elastic or drawstring waists will hold things up without a heavy, hot (and often chafing) belt.

    Get a broad brimmed hat – preferably straw with some vent holes in it. Yes, it is a little more awkward than a baseball cap, but you will adjust to it, and you will get much better sun protection. I have known a commercial fisherman now for years who has no ears – lost them to skin cancer because he favored baseball caps over brimmed hats. And the wider the brim the better – think african hunter, or frontier farmer hats, not boonie hats (though I like them for rainy places….) If you can find a genuine farm store they often sell them. If you want a more feminine look, ladies, tie a pretty scarf around it for a hat band. Sunbonnets will keep the sun off but range of vision is more sharply curtailed, and they are much hotter than a good straw hat. I have sought out sewing patterns for broad brimmed hats in case it is necessary to make my own – but not everybody knows how to sew.

    Sturdy shoes with hard soles for when you are walking around in places other than your own property (presuming that you know what is in your grass). We had sandals for dress up but always wore hard soled regular shoes (lace up styles, buckles are flimsy nowdays) for working in the field, shop, or anywhere where you could find surprises lurking in the grass. Snake boots are hot but a must for me in poisonous snake territory. You will adapt.

    2. Use the circadian rhythms of the day intelligently. There is a reason why a siesta is traditional in hot countries – the work is done in the early morning, before the full heat of the sun ramps up, and after things cool a bit in the afternoon. Though I grew up in Wisconsin, not Mexico, we did the same. The field work was for the morning. It was common knowledge that the sun would burn you worse between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm, so around then you would knock off the outdoor work and find something to do in the shade – husking corn for canning, or the like. Laundry was a good job – working with the water was cooling and so was hanging out the clothes (that evaporating water just made the whole clothesline area cooler). If your summer kitchen was not outdoors, you would save the kitchen heating canning action for after sunset.

    You did as much as possible outside – foods during hot spells were grilled outdoors to keep from heating up the kitchen, or were made ahead the evening before (after dinner when it was cooler) and refrigerated/chilled/kept in a cold place for the next day. A favorite meal in the heat of the summer was sweet corn (roasted outside) and watermelon (because they were all too big to keep refrigerated for the next day). Refrigerator space was kept for milk, butter, and the like, and it was at a premium. Ice cream was a big treat for the same reason. Look in the old cookbooks and you will see many of them address the ‘problem’ of hot weather meals. I remember summer kitchens – separate buildings with lots of windows – where food was cooked and canning was done, so as not to heat up the main house and make it too hot to sleep.

    3. That brings us to sleeping. No air conditioning? We slept on porches (if you had one, and hopefully it was screened). We slept in basements (naturally much cooler than the upper house). I even had a chair in the root cellar in one old house, big enough to sleep in if it got really hot. Even a bunk-tent was cooler than the big house. Remember awnings? They are beginning to pop up again as a good way to keep the heat of the sun from your windows. They were all over the place before air conditioning became common. You could sleep under those, too. Mosquitoes were controlled by keeping sources of water (the water barrels) covered or cleaned up so they had no place to reproduce. Citronella candles repelled them from sitting areas, and sleeping areas alike, but you had to remember to put them out when you went to sleep. Since temperatures often cool off at night the natural ‘air conditioning’ was treasured. Shades and curtains kept closed in the daytime to keep sun and heat out were thrown open at night if there was any breeze at all.

    And if all else failed, remember that a cool pillow and sheets help you go back to sleep – we just got up for about 15 min, had a cool drink of water, or wiped off with a warm washcloth, and the bed was cooled down again. In the morning, when you made the bed, you first aired it out (to get out any perspiration moisture) then dusted it with baby powder (lightly) to smooth and soothe the sleep the next night.

    4. Water was critical – to hydrate and cool your person. You can still purchase crockery water coolers to keep it readily available (nice if you have to pump it up out of a well). Water is still the premier cooling drink; after all your body evolved to use it effectively. Sugared drinks were ‘heating’ and saved for parties and special days (who else remembers popcorn and koolade for a sunday afternoon treat?

    A good kerchief (not those dinky bandannas, but ones twice as big) were popular neckwear, not just for mopping a brow (though they did that very well) but for wetting down to help keep the neck cool. A cool neck meant a cooler head (by cooling the jugular veins) and many folks wore them on their heads wetted down to help cool down.

    And for the ultimate cool-down, it is hard to beat a swim. My folks on the hottest days, took the family out in the evening for a swim (the local pool had family hours from 7 to 8 pm, to encourage adults to come swim and control their offspring) knowing that the cooling effect would last all night and every one would sleep better.

    Before the pool opened, the nearby beach (well, only 8 miles down the road) was a common destination after the morning labor was done, between 10 and 2 pm it was very nice to take a dip before going home to start up the grill for dinner. The cool down did much to dispel the ‘hot weather crankies’.

    So there you have the skinny on what life was like before air conditioning was common. Living that way is not unpleasant, just different. Who knows, as the power prices keep escalating I may re-institute more and more of those old timey cooling tricks just to afford the power to the fridge running.

    And please, no cracks about ‘you can get on a program for that’ or ‘you can get (this or that) for free’. It ain’t free, somebody pays for it, and I don’t think that picking someone else’s pocket for my comfort or convenience is neighborly OR ethical.

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