The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Two: Air Conditioning

I suppose it’s odd to note one’s thankful for air conditioning in November, in Ohio, when the temperature outside is a brisk 46 degrees, with a high of 53 expected later. But then again I’m not just talking about things I’m grateful for today. I’m also talking about things that I am grateful for in, say, August, when we’re having one of those 90 degree, 90 percent humidity days and going outside sucks all that is good and decent out of you and leaves you being nothing but a perspiring lump of simpering boy-man. On those days, hell yeah, air conditioning rocks.

I have always been an air conditioning fan, but then I would be, considering where I have lived in my life. I grew up in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, which is far away from the cool ocean breezes and backed up against the mountains, so we would bake from May through September. Then I went to Chicago, whose summers are famously sticky. Then to Fresno, where the average high temperature from June through August is above 90 degrees, and 100 degree temperatures were not in the least unusual for several days running. From there to Washington DC, which was built on a goddamned swamp. Ohio is the least air conditioning-intensive of all the places I’ve ever lived, but the part I live in has a “humid continental climate,” which means lots of summer days when you’re swimming through body-temperature air.

Seriously, in all of these cases, I wonder how people managed before air conditioning became widespread. The answer is that they designed houses for air flow, slept on porches, wore big hats, fanned themselves a lot and sweated the proverbial buckets, all day long, every day from mid-May to the end of September. I do understand that. But they can’t have been happy about it. It can’t have been fun to spend four and a half months of the year in a state of overheated stickiness — and not the fun kind of overheated stickiness at that. Oh, we can romanticize it and talk about “sultry summer nights” if you like. But what I suspect “sultry” really meant was that everyone had sweat stains on their clothes and smelled like they have been marinating in hobo sauce. Which to me at least is the very opposite of sexy.

All of which possibly tags me as an ineffectual wimp when it comes to matters regarding heat, to which I cheerfully say: You bet I am. I suppose if I had to live in a world without air conditioning I could survive, although I would probably whine enough that those around me would want to murder me, and I would sincerely hope that the mysterious disappearance of air conditioning technology was not also coupled by the mysterious disappearance of deodorant technology. However, I don’t have to live in such a world. Indeed, my ancestors sweated like pigs through all their summers in order that I could live in a time where I could press a button and have my living environment be seventy two degrees on any given day of the year. Not taking advantage of air conditioning would be positively disrespectful to them (I’m pretty sure they’d feel the same way about my playing video games too).

So to my ancestors: Thank you for sweating, so that I don’t have to, unless I want to, say, in a gym sort of situation where the sweat is a laudable result of trying to make myself look fit and sexy, rather than in a I’m just existing sort of situation, where I’m sweating because the alternative is heat stroke. I’m sorry you’re not here to enjoy this air conditioning with me. I’ll try to enjoy it for all of us. It’s an awesome responsibility. But I think I’m up to the task.

54 thoughts on “The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Two: Air Conditioning

  1. I moved to Virginia in late August in a car without AC. I had a new (Used) car with AC before the next summer. The No Car Payment vs Car with AC was a winter long debate, but once it started getting hot and humid the more I was willing to make a car payment.

  2. I grew up moving between Alabama, Tennessee and Maryland. I agree with you completely about those 90 degree, 90 percent humidity days. They were particularly nasty when my car didn’t have a working air conditioner, either. Nothing felt better to my teenage self than walking into a nice, dark, air conditioned move theater.

    This also made me think of a quote from Dogma: “No pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater… than central air. “

  3. All hail Freon, the goddess of air conditioning. I thought I was the only one who properly worshiped this wonderful gift of the goddess. Its good to see that Freon has other followers.

  4. Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, which is far away from the cool ocean breezes and backed up against the mountains, And we couldn’t see the mountains due to the smog. Good old Stage 1 alerts.

  5. As a DC native, I must throw a flag on the whole “DC built on a swamp” nonsense. We’re a tidal plain, thankyaverymuch. ;-)

    Click here for some reference. The money quote:

    The land that became L’Enfant’s federal city was never a swamp, but it was a water-rich environment, crisscrossed by streams and framed by Rock Creek, the Potomac and the Anacostia, known then simply as “the Eastern Branch.”

    We’re stuck in a Humid Subtropical Climate, that’s all.

  6. A work colleague was bleating on about AC and how much energy it uses and how it’s directly causing the ice caps to disapper yada yada… when another wandered in to the conversation and asked, in all seriousness, whether they were disappearing because ice from them was used somehow in ACs… A true “STFU Donnie!” moment.

  7. There’s a quote from one of Jane Austen’s letters that displays how they felt about heat in the Olden Days: “What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.” So yeah, sweating.

    When I was apartment-hunting for my current abode, central air conditioning (which I did not have at the old place) was at the top of the Required list.

  8. Without A/C Florida wouldn’t even be habitable.

    Neither would North Carolina.

    However, I have a tree-hugging friend, an environmental lawyer, who refuses to use A/C. He claims that after awhile, you “toughen up” and don’t sweat nearly as much. Maybe.

    I do remember when I was in college, I lived in an apartment so energy-inefficient that to turn on the A/C would have meant not eating that month. Worse, it would have meant not drinking. So we got quite good at using window fans. We had them set up to pull air from the shady side of the building in the morning, and change them around throughout the day to maximize air circulation. I’ll stick with central air, thanks.

  9. 1) We need to kill the people who got Freon banned and increased AC/refrigeration costs worldwide. The replacement is not as effective and is insanely expensive compared to Freon which was just about to lose its patent protection. (hmmm)

    2) Require List for Habitation
    a) AC
    b) ICE maker (really? you dont have an ice maker and you dont have fights about who did fill the trays?)
    c) dish washer
    d) laundry in the building (in the unit is NICE, but a laundry room lets you BATCH wash)

  10. I see your AC and raise you “central”. Lugging those big bulky machines in and out of windows every spring and fall sucked. actually it was the up and down the pull down ladder that nearly killed me.

    I did grow up on a farm without AC and you do acclimate quite a bit to the heat, and that is handy working outside a lot. But with a white collar job in suburbia, I must say woot to having ac.

  11. When the zombie apocalypse happens, a/c will be one of the last things they pry from my cold, dead (er, live?) hands.

  12. You write “sultry summer nights” and I read “the night was moist.” If you don’t get it, watch Throw Mama From the Train and thank me later.

    Living in Seattle, I used to think that AC was unnecessary, but after having my first car with AC, I’d hate to be without it in my gas-powered portable greenhouse. Still not needed at home most of the year, though.

    @Peter:
    Regarding your thoughts on the banning of freon: as a pale-skinned, easily-sunburned person who would rather not lose my eyesight due to ultra high UV levels, I appreciate regulations which help keep the ozone layer intact.

  13. I grew up in Chicago. I lived there from the time I was born until just after I turned 12 (’84). Every place I ever lived in Chicago, as far as I can recall, had central air and heat.

    As others have pointed out about DC, North Carolina, et al, living in Houston (where we moved in ’84) wouldn’t even be possible without a/c. In August here the temp routinely goes to at least 98 degrees, with accompanying 98 percent humidity.

    When I briefly entertained the idea of moving back up north (WI), I was genuinely surprised to find so many houses/apts that did *not* have central a/c. While it’s true it’s not quite as necessary for minimal survival as it is in Houston, a lot of the people I spoke to in WI were equally surprised to learn that we’d always had central a/c in IL when I was growing up.

  14. I seriously wonder — I’m not trying to be snarky here, and I note that I’m a bigger, fatter guy than I want to be — how much air conditioning contributes to America’s obesity problems. When it’s HOT out, I don’t want to eat much, no matter how much I exercise. But when it’s 68-72 no matter where I go, I eat like it’s spring or fall or winter.

  15. Indeed, hooray for the A/C, without it civilised living just wouldn’t be possible in the hot parts of the world, just ask people in e.g. Italy. Luckily the world is getting warmer, so we can burn more fossil fuels to power more A/Cs…wait, no, of course we’ll use clean nucular energy. And lets continue building houses as crappily as possible so they heat up in summer and cool off in winter.

    Please John, can you do the Hummer next?

  16. I live in the Northeast, inland, so gee-maybe-AC-would-be-nice days are at most a few per summer. Fans are adequate.

    On the other hand, we just lived through a reminder of the worth of central heating. And electric lights. And net access. It’s wonderful to get it back.

    Some of my co-workers are still without power at home, and they sometimes look at me like they’re wondering how many BTUs could be obtained from burning my somewhat-padded body..

  17. I grew up in central Georgia, and we didn’t have air conditioning at home till I was in high school. We did have lots and lots of large windows, shade trees, and 10-foot ceilings (all of which made it a lot harder to keep the place warm in the winter).

    When they built our high school we were very pleased that it had AC. We were less pleased when the AC blew out all the time, taking the power with it, and leaving us unable to hold class because without the old-style large windows, there wasn’t enough light or air circulation in the classrooms during a power failure, even in the middle of the day.

  18. Perhaps Florida wouldn’t have the population that it does today, but Florida was inhabited before the invention of air conditioning as was North Carolina.

  19. I’m pretty sure the reason we HAVE air conditioning is because our ancestors did NOT enjoy the heat & humidity; did NOT tolerate the misery of life in 90+ heat with 90+% humidity, looked around one day & said, “You know, we have electricity now. We can make ice. BLEEP this sweating like a pig crap. I bet I can turn my whole damn house into a continuous icebox.”

    And then followed through.

    I had surgery at the end of July in Tennessee. As I was hobbling around the yard one afternoon, trying to do that “walk a little every day to heal or you’ll be doomed” thing, I couldn’t help appreciating the fact that my recovery was done in a climate controlled splendor, & the walk around the yard took up about 10 minutes of my time. I barely imagine daily life without AC in the summer. I couldn’t even imagine how miserable illness & recovering from surgery would be without it.

  20. Yanks… at 12:28 pm

    You must be a northern European.

    Dude, Italy isn’t a hot part of the world. It’s a pleasantly warm part of the world. Rome’s average highs in July are just a couple of degrees warmer than New York City (far from the hottest climate in USA), and nights are significantly cooler. Milan’s summers are more like Boston’s.

  21. I firmly believe that the rise of the “New South” in the latter part of the 20th century was due to the widespread adoption of A/C. I grew up on Long Island in the 70s and 80s and for the most part, no matter how hot it got during the day, there was a cool breeze at night to make things bearable. Fast forward to attending law school in Chapel Hill, NC in the mid 90s. I left a study group one night at about midnight…and it was close to 90 degrees with 90% humidity…in late September. I knew then that there was something intrinsically different about living in the South.

    Consider that the South gained maunfacturing prominence to challenge the industrialized North over the last 40 years or so. The “business friendly climate” of the South is what one often hears to explain this change, but I think the “indoor climate control” is more important; the South has been anti-union since the abolition of slavery, but you’ve only been able to make it livable 12 months a year for the last 40-50 years.

  22. Beautiful cat pic! Living in the north of England, it’s heating I appreciate rather than air-con (which we have in the office but not at home), but I do like our air-conditioned car; it’s great on the occasional greenhouse days that we do get.

  23. I lived in Florida for a bit. Went to some local museums & saw a lot of pictures of the early settlers. They usually hah high, stiff, collars and wore suit coats or long dresses with long sleeves. How they did not all succumb to heat stroke is beyond me.

    I grew up in the ’50s but in Minnesota so it was not as bad. But I can still remember summer nights, laying near the window, praying for any breeze & turning the pillow over because the underside was cool than the top.

  24. @steve Halter:IIRC Gin&Tonic was created in attempt to make tonic water, which contain quinine, and thus are good against malaria, more palatable so people will have easier time drinking it.

  25. I’m old enough to have grown up before wide spread airconditioning, which included my home and schools through high-school. This was in Houston, TX, which is on the same latitude as Cairo, Egypt and normally receives 40+ inches of rain each year. :-)

    There were nights during the summer when it was difficult to sleep, but otherwise I really didn’t get particularly uncomfortable. When my parents added a window airconditioner about the time I entered high-school, there would be many times during the summer, when I would close my room off from the rest of the house so that I could have the windows open.

    As I’ve aged, I find the heat less tolerable, but I don’t sweat nearly as easily as I did when young. There were times when I would pull my shirt off and wring the water out. By the same token I was in Bakersfield 30 years or so ago during the summer with temperatures in excess of 100 F. I would get cold outside because of the very low humidity.

  26. San Diego for the win baby YEAH! Oh wait, I’m totally reminded of the fires in 2007. It was 107 degrees (but dry) and our office was closed because it was in Rancho Bernardo, right where all the fires were burning. We were in the middle of a national project (a software rebuild) at work and I was the lead for my office. I HAD to join these conference calls and do regression testing. So I sat in my dining room in my underwear and had the crappy wall AC unit in the living room on full blast. It kinda worked. I got out of work for a week because of those fires, but because our AC was pathetic, and I had to do at least two hours of work each day, I honestly would have preferred going to the office. Yeah, we got paid just like normal (it wasn’t like we’d called in sick), but I told my manager that the next time the city catches fire, I’ve got dibs on NOT being the one who ends up working from home.

  27. for 12 years I lived in Georgia. Summers there start around March and by August it’ll hit 100+ for a week straight with 90% humidity. You sweat like a marathon runner — standing still in the shade. So yes, Air Conditioning is an amazing advancement. I have no idea how they managed in the 1800s, wearing wool suits.

    On the flip side, I now live in Portland, Oregon where the natives start complaining about the heat if it gets over 80 (which it rarely does, even in August). I laugh at them. Right in their faces.

  28. Actually, I believe it is Chicago that was built on a swamp, not DC.

    @Yanks – When did appreciating A/C become John supporting unsustainable energy usage? For all we know, he has solar panels installed on his house and actually sells electricity back to the power company. I can tell you that having experienced heat stroke more than once in my life, A/C was, if not a life saver, pretty damn close to it.

  29. A colleague of mine from the UK was here a couple weeks ago and he was boggled at the fact that we all have AC. Heck, he was boggled that his hotel had AC. He said that it’s just not a thing in the UK and people just deal with heat and/or humidity. Ick? I told him that he comes from a strange and savage land.

  30. @Eridani – we’d only need A/C in the UK a few weeks a year at most, opening the windows and using a fan is cheaper & easier. And A/C is very common in offices & hotels & cars.

  31. I don’t know anybody who’s got AC in his/her home, at least not IRL. Central heating, that’s a boon I wouldn’t want to live without, but AC? Naw. For what, the rare cases the temp goes over 30°C? Open Window, Ice cream and, if you want to be fancy, get a fan, and you’re set.

    Different climate zones and everything.

    My office has AC, though, and I hate it like the pest. Having to rely on a building spanning ventilation system without being able to regulate temperature or open a window and let in proper, fresh air, that sucks. Since I started working there, I regulary fall ill in Spring and Autumn.

  32. If there is any doubt that AirCon changed the world, one needs only take a look at the way in which birth dates skewed after the introduction of window-mounted models, which were inevitably installed in bedrooms (back in the days when more than one television in a household was inconceivable)…

    “Hmmm… it’s too darned hot everywhere else in the house, so I guess we’re stuck here in this bedroom… The two of us… With nothing to do…”

    On the other hand, when I moved to my present locale one of the things that came along with me was my air conditioner. While it was being unloaded from the moving truck, there was a brief chuckle from the driver as she proclaimed “ya won’t be needin’ one of those out here.”

  33. I’ve always been a cold weather person, because in cold weather, you can always bundle up more, but when it’s hot, well… you can only take off so many clothes before you’re naked. Plus the heat just makes you sweaty and nasty, necessitating a lot of extra showers just to make you feel like a human being again… the cold just makes you cold, and it goes away eventually.

    During my first summer at UChicago, I was stupid enough not to invest in an air-conditioning unit… because I’m cheap and poor (grad students usually are). I survived through the use of a giant industrial-sized fan, but if I had to do over again I’d have just bitten the bullet and gotten the air conditioning. Chicago summers are just no fun.

  34. But in the SGV, it’s a dry heat (saying that sarcastically). Hey, we don’t have as many stage one smog alerts either. I can’t remember the last one that occurred. See, progress. I do think that the Eastern part of the U.S. was hotter this year than the LA area. When I lived in DC, it could be 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. Now that was not fun.

    We’re moving into a house without air conditioning. Hopefully it will have air conditioning before next August. It never gets hot anymore in the San Gabriel Valley before August. Then in October it can be 100 degrees on some days. We get cold when it’s 60 degrees while the rest of the country is screaming shorts weather. I admit, we are wimps.

  35. Yanks: Please remember that much, much more energy is used heating homes than cooling them. With only rare exceptions the temperature differential between inside/outside when using air condition is less than 20 degrees; a fifty degree or more differential for prolonged periods is typical with heating.

    Frankly: I was told that in the olden days when the pictures you are referring to were taken having a photo taken was a big deal, so the subjects dressed in their most formal clothes–clothes they very rarely wore. Their more typical dress, while not cool by our standards (they did wear more than shorts and a t-shirt, particularly the women) would have been more practical than what they are seen in.

  36. I live in Western Pennsylvania and the summers can get into the 90s with the high humidity of living near three rivers. Even so, we still don’t have AC in our house, although every summer I consider it on the really hot nights when it’s nearly impossible to sleep. Since I work in an air conditioned office, I don’t spend all day without AC so it remains a seasonal debate. I may make a small concession next year and get a window AC for the bedroom. But then, I’ve been saying that for a few years now and I haven’t.

  37. I grew up in Nebraska which can easily have 95 degrees for weeks at a time.
    When I was a kid in the 60’s, most people didn’t have AC yet. Very expensive item back then so most people got by with a swamp cooler. Hook a garden hose to the thing and let the water trickle down the fibers with a huge slow turning fan blowing air through it. My Uncle Virgil and Aunt Delores had a big one installed in the dining room double window. Sunday afternoons in the summer everyone would be around the big table, playing 10 point pitch or Pinochle in the cool breeze generated by that big old cooler. Didn’t matter it was 95 in the shade, we stayed pretty happy at least untill we had to go back outside to go home.

  38. I remember reading somewhere that attitudes toward air conditioning changed drastically over the 20th century. Here’s a couple of presidential examples. Franklin D. Roosevelt would not have air conditioning in the White House– he considered it to be low-class. Three decades later, Richard Nixon was using air conditioning in the White House to keep it cold enough that he could have a fire burning in the fireplace, even during summer.

  39. If you ever read a Victorian novel and wonder why everyone just plops down in the afternoon… I’ve been in a three-piece-suit in May (not June, not July, but May) heat, and you have to sit down at some point. So I feel your pain / love (of AC).

  40. As a teenager, I once spent a summer mostly without A/C in the home. We’d been living in the country, but this particular summer I got to stay at a friend’s place in the (relatively) big city. As it happened, the misery value of A/C-lessness was counterbalanced by my being a music nut with a bicycle and access to a decent public library (i.e., one that allowed me to check out record albums) for the first time in five years. (Come to think of it, it may be that one reason I spent so much time in libraries that summer was because they had A/C. I also hung around malls as much as I could.)

  41. You can get used to living without AC, John, and do acclimatize. But the downside is that when the temperature starts dropping you end up looking like a wimp. You find yourself in a jumper and jeans while, just a few yards away, someone is wearing less material than a hankey and slapping on the sun lotion.

  42. Actually, Florida was indeed almost completely uninhabited in the 19th century. A few scattered plantations in the panhandle, but the peninsula had a couple of forts, a few scattered Indians, and that was about it. Before a/c, Florida and Texas were the least populated states in the South. Look at them now. (Oh, and Texas. General Shierdan, sent to occupy it after the Civil War, said, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in Hell.”)

    Serious question from someone who lives in a non-a/c-intensive environment: Do you leave the a/c on when everyone’s away from home for a weekend or a week’s vacation? Still true if there are no pets left at home?

  43. Love the theme for your blog. : ) I am grateful that I live in a part of Canada (Nova Scotia) that doesn’t require me to invest in Air Conditioning. Heat & lights cost enough as it is. Sure we get some hot & humid days but I cope with those few by just a turning on the fan. Since I am a BIG wimp for hot/humud weather I gladly take the freezing cold temps in exchange for not dying of heat stroke. ; )

    I have friends who live in Atlanta and Tennesse and it just amazes me how they cope with the heat. They must really like me because they put up with my whining when I attend Dragon*con with them. I try to not to be too annoying but they don’t call it HOTlanta for nothing.

    I also really appreciated your blog about not drinking. I agree with you everything. You don’t know how annoying it is to have people look at you, like you have two heads, when you tell them you don’t drink. It like they think something is wrong with you. I prefer to remember the fun times I have had and still have money left in my bank account. Drinking was a habit I just never acquired. Back when I was young and my friends & I had turned old enough to go to the Bars, I was the only one with a car. So I became the designated driver which is something I never regreted. Boy could some of my friends drink. I was glad to be able to make sure they all got home safely.

  44. Simon S. @11:22am – no, we didn’t leave the AC on this past summer when the temperatures were 100+ for days and days and days. It probably had more to do with the fact that the budget unit installed in our shoddily “insulated” rental house just couldn’t cope with things this past summer, and the line would freeze, which is never a good thing. Yes, we have cats. We would block the south-facing windows best we could and keep fans running almost 24/7 to move the air around.

    Someone mentioned that you get used to the heat, and I do agree to an extent. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and while it would get quite warm sometimes in summer, it really cannot compare to what I’ve experienced in Texas since I’ve lived here. I’m a pale thing with Northern European heritage and really don’t take well to heat, but I got *somewhat* accustomed to the heat. To the point where I wanted a sweater when the office thermostat was set lower than 75F.

    So I’d say that I too am grateful for AC… if the AC in my house had actually worked this past summer. :-\

  45. “but the part I live in has a “humid continental climate,” which means lots of summer days when you’re swimming through body-temperature air.”

    As a life-long resident, I can tell you maybe only the Lake Erie islands don’t have that humid continental climate. Every where else in the state is a sauna from late May to mid-September.

  46. During college I spent four years working at a summer camp in the Fayetteville, NC area. It was routinely 90/90 since we were on a lake and wetland area. Surprisingly, we did get used to not having A/C and the smell of our sweaty bodies helped to repel the mosquitoes rather effectively. So there was an upside.

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