Beating the Heat, Vintage Style

I grew up without central air conditioning. In fact, mostly without air conditioning at all. Actually, come to think of it, I have never lived in a house with central air. And I grew up in a pretty hot and steamy region of the country, where the temperature in the summer routinely reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity.

Where? North Dakota. No, seriously.

At any rate, these days I find myself in the Hudson Valley of New York, squeaking by in a 1940s house with poor insulation, old-fashioned windows, and an under-attic second story. So we have a couple of window unit air conditioners to keep things comfortable in this ever-warming world (seriously – 90 degrees in May? MAY?! And now June. I don’t even want to think about August).

BUT, along the way I have learned a few tips for beating the heat without resorting to electrically-cooled air. So here are a few of the best.

1) Get used to it.

“Washington in Summer” with Woodrow Wilson grilling a rack of “Congress” weenies. 1913 (library of congress)

Your body WILL acclimate to the heat, provided you drink enough water and stay out of the sun. Believe me – I spent two blazingly hot North Dakota summers in high school doing late 19th century living history interpretation (that means at least 3 layers, sometimes more) in old wooden buildings in an area with very few trees or shade of any kind. We learned to appreciate the 10 degree difference between full sun on asphalt and the darkish interiors of the buildings, but we survived. Stay in the shade, wear a hat, wear white clothing that breathes, wear long-sleeves (no really) – all of these are pretty typical vintage and antique ways to beat the heat.

2) Get wet.

Pine Grove Mills, PA swimming hole in 1941 (library of congress)

Go swimming. If you can’t go swimming, run through the sprinkler or hose each other off. If you can’t do that, take a cool shower. If you can’t do that, soak your extremities in cold water (remember, all of your blood runs through your hands and feet). Or soak your head. If you can’t do that, consider putting a damp cloth or cabbage leaf under your hat, like old-time baseball players used to do. And if you can’t do that, then take a leaf from the Caribbean, Africa, and India and eat foods filled with hot peppers to make you sweat. Water wicking can cool beverages as well as people. Water kept in unglazed earthen jars would be cooler than glazed ones because the water seeping through the unglazed clay would evaporate and cool the jar. You can use the same principle by dampening your hair, clothes, or skin.  But a nice swimming hole is better. Preferably one fed by a frigid mountain stream.

3) Get thee some moving air.

1830s patent illustration for a mechanical fan. (wikimedia commons)

Moving air, especially over wet or damp skin, wicks heat away from the body. In the 19th century and into the early 20th, this was sometimes managed by taking a boat trip. The cooler air around lakes, rivers, and the ocean, combined with the movement of the ships, was a primitive sort of air conditioning. Hand powered fans were also used extensively, especially by women and especially in the South. In the 19th century, a variety of clockwork or pulley-powered over-the-table fans were developed, some of them specifically to keep farmyard flies off of the family dinner table. Today, we can use everything from oscillating to box to blade-less fans.

4) Use the night.

Sitting on the pier on a hot summer’s night in New York City. Note the sleeping children. Undated. (library of congress)

My mom always did this for our house and while it didn’t always cool the house all the way down, it did give a leg-up on our poor, beleaguered window a/c units: If it gets down to 65 or cooler at night, open all the windows in the house and have fans in the windows pointing in. Bonus points if you have one fan pointing in on one side of the room and another pointing out on the other side, but you need opposing windows to do this. In the morning, once the sun really starts to get going (usually around 8 or 9 am), close all of the windows up tight and draw all the shades to keep the sun out. By filling the house with cool air and blocking sunlight, you can help keep the interior of your house significantly cooler than the outdoors. It won’t stay 60 degrees inside, but a 75 degree house feels quite cool when it’s 90 degrees out. People living in desert areas all over the world know about this trick, because the low humidity of desert areas means that evenings can get quite chilly, even in summer. In fact, an ancient way of making ice is to place a large, shallow dish of water out of doors at night in the desert – sometimes it will get cold enough to make a thin sheet of ice by morning.

In the 19th century, sleeping porches were another way to take advantage of the night’s cool air. Common on Victorian homes, these second-story screened porches often jutted out from the house, allowing for three sides of screening and in hopes of catching a breeze.

5) Eat cooling foods.

Commercial Club entertaining with watermelon and lemonade. 1917 (library of congress)

For the love of pete don’t turn on the stove or oven if you don’t have to! Take note of Mediterranean cuisines and 19th century farmhouse suppers for good ideas: stovetop flatbreads and quick grain porridges with maple syrup and milk, cucumbers, yogurt and new cheeses like cottage cheese, cold milk and cream, raw vegetables, chilled fruits, etc. Radish or cucumber sandwiches, fruit lassi, Italian crescente, watermelon in sherry, cottage cheese balls a la Laura Ingalls Wilder – these are all cooling, no-cook foods that can help keep you cool. Even cold boiled foods like cold potatoes with mayo or sour cream dip, blanched green beans and carrots, and hard boiled eggs and poached chicken are better when cold. If you must cook, do so in the cool of early morning or well after the sun has gone down and try to keep the cooking to the stovetop, or better yet the outdoor grill, to minimize heating up the house. There’s a reason why “summer kitchens” were outbuildings for much of the 18th and 19th century.

You can’t talk about cooling foods without mentioning ice cream. I’m on a fruity frozen yogurt kick, myself. A local “froyo” store sells by the ounce and is really quite delicious – a cut above most of those types of places. Want to cool down anything in a hurry? Take a leaf from both 19th century ice cream makers AND Mythbusters and salt your ice. Saltwater freezes at below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, so you’ll get icy-cold beverages with less melting and in less time. Just don’t put the salted ice IN your drink.

6) Drink plenty of fluids.

Wartime agricultural trainees take a lemonade break on the farm. 1942 (library of congress)

From water to lemonade to haymakers punch (a.k.a. switchel), it is important to stay hydrated. Even in the 17th century people knew you could get sick from drinking too much plain cold water. So they made “punches” of spices, lemon, molasses, even boiled barley, to quench the thirst and keep people drinking. Haymaking time – in late July and August – was the hottest, thirstiest work of the agricultural year. Hence the need for hydration, as people sweated out not only water but also important electrolytes or natural salts. So drinking lots of liquid helps with that sweating to evaporate trick.

Drinking plenty also prevents dehydration, which can lead to headaches, dizziness, fainting, and other unpleasant side-effects.

Refrigerator tea (easier and less bacteria-laden than sun tea) is an easy and tasty way to get plenty of fluids. Simply place a bag or two of your favorite tea in a pitcher, fill with room-temperature or cool water, and stick in the fridge. By morning you’ll have iced tea. We love to use Earl Grey for a delicate black tea with lovely bergamot flavor. Peppermint is also excellent. If you use hibiscus, you’re on your way to agua de Jamaica or Egyptian karkade.

Sliced cucumber, berries, citrus fruit, apple, melon, and fresh herbs all make delicious and low-calorie additions to plain tap water. Muddle them a little and let them steep for several hours for the best flavor.

7) Take a nap.

French lithograph: “Doux sommeil” or “Sweet Sleep.” 1851 (library of congress)

The time-honored tradition of an afternoon siesta is still in effect in some warmer climes (notably in Spain). Sleeping through the heat of the day and staying up later was one way to beat the heat. Of course, most of us can’t get away with that these days, what with 365 day jobs, but on weekends, or at least Saturdays, it’s worth a shot.

How do you keep cool on blindingly hot days?

One Response to “Beating the Heat, Vintage Style”
  1. Anne Marie White says:

    Love this. Great Ideas to beat the heat!

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