Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Life Before Air Conditioning

Air conditioning hasn't just cooled our rooms. It’s changed the way we live.

Before homes were cooled by air conditioning  – in that bygone and less comfortable era – coping with the heat of summer influenced the way we lived.

Families gathered on the front porch to cool off, relax, visit, read the newspaper, share the day’s activities, gossip about neighborhood goings on and generally wind down.

Neighbors would more easily stop in to visit if they saw you sitting on the front porch.  

Here in the Southern U.S., houses were designed with airflow in mind, thus higher ceilings and more windows. The dogtrot house design was common.

Wikipedia describes the dogtrot design as consisting of “two log cabins connected by a breezeway or "dogtrot", all under a common roof. Typically one cabin was used for cooking and dining while the other was used as a private living space, such as a bedroom. 

The primary characteristics of a dogtrot house is that it is typically one or 1 1⁄2-stories, has at least two rooms averaging between 18 to 20 feet (5.5 to 6.1 m) wide that each flank an open-ended central hall. Additional rooms usually take the form of a semidetached ell or shed rooms, flanking the hall to the front or rear.
The breezeway through the center of the house is a unique feature, with rooms of the house opening into the breezeway. The breezeway provided a cooler covered area for sitting. The combination of the breezeway and open windows in the rooms of the house created air currents which pulled cooler outside air into the living quarters efficiently in the pre-air conditioning era. Most dogtrots had full-width porches to the front and/or rear, which could be used as sleeping porches with beds – a great place to spend a summer night.

The breezeway also was the place where the lady of the house sat to string beans, peel apples and perform all manner of chores that could be performed while sitting.


Other coping devices for surviving the hot days and nights were attic and window fans, naps during the heat of the day, carrying hand-held fans around, wide-brimmed hats, drinking lots of cool well water, and of course, the old swimming hole.

It also should be noted that food for the mid-day and evening meal was cooked early in the day -- right after breakfast. The purpose of this was to allow the heat from the stove to get out of the house before nightfall and allow a cooler house for sleeping. The food prepared prepared early in the day was consumed for both "dinner" at mid-day and "supper" in the evening.

Before air conditioning was common, retail outlets posted signs in windows, inviting patrons to “Come inside; it’s air conditioned!” Movie theaters were popular gathering places, as they were typically air conditioned.
It has been pointed out that air conditioning was responsible for transforming the economies of the U.S. South and Southwest, making formerly inhospitable regions a great place to live and do business.

I enjoy my air conditioning as much as anyone. But I surely miss those summer evenings of front porch, when people gathered to tell family stories and to make simple comments like, “the Four O’Clocks sure do smell good tonight, don’t they?” 


  1. Dear Sanda- I grew up without AC...our home was built facing south so it would be cool naturally. We did have fans but we coped in general...of course the climate was not harsh (kind of like Denver), so one could do without. Many homes in Europe and Australia are still without AC. We live comfortably here and I too would not want to be without AC if I lived in the South. Happy Wednesday to you. x

    1. Those fans were life-savers before AC. We had a window fan that really cooled down the house, esp. at night. The sound of the fan running would loll me to sleep each night. Loved it!

  2. I installed air con in my smaller cottage 2 years ago. Other than that i was brought up with fans..The old colonial homes in South Africa and Australia were like the ones you described Sanda.. in fact in some of the outer towns.. in s.a some of the houses are still the same.
    Here the village people cant afford aircon.. a few have it recently.. but very few.
    Of an evening after dinner, you can walk around the village and see the ladies sitting on their little chairs doing their crochet.. and talking with the neighbours.
    Its a nice thing to see. I was not brought up in the village or town.. so never exerienced this.
    A very interesting post Sanda.. thanks for sharing this info.. I love these kind of stories.
    val x

    1. How nice that you still see ladies in the village sitting around working on needles and visiting with neighbors. AC is quite expensive here as well (the electricity bills) but in summer I'd as soon forego food as cooling. Of course, in those pre air conditioning days our bodies were conditioned to the heat and we didn't feel it as much as we do now.

  3. Private homes over here don´t need air-conditioning.
    Our over 100 years old house though has it´s own air-conditioning.
    Very noticeable during the winter months, and looking at the electricity bills.
    What we do, is open / or not our windows, and change into lighter blankets.

    But public places ( most of the ), the newer ones do have air-conditioning, as do the big stores, the bigger and more expensive restaurants and hotels.
    Oh, all the new cars have ac too, even mine.

    1. I would not have thought in our climate that homes would have AC. I dearly love having windows open in nice weather to capture the smells and sounds from outdoors but here, can only do that in the spring and autumn. But I will say that AC is better for the allergy sufferers!

  4. Interesting, I've never seen a house built like that but then again I've never lived where it was really hot for days on end.

    Our house by the Bay was built in the early 1930's and doesn't have A/C. We would only need it a handful of days if we did have it. Our climate is very temperate. Most public places have A/C and in my opinion they often keep their area too cold. When I don't need a jacket or wrap outside but have to put one on inside it seems kind of wrong somehow.


    1. Those dogtrot style homes were quite common here in bygone years and many still exist. However, the style has mostly been abandoned with the advent of AC in homes.

      I agree with you that most public places keep it too cold inside. I usually take a jacket with me when I'm out and about. Does seem like such a waste of resources.

  5. i grew up with air conditioning, but that meant we had 1 window ac unit in the dining room and 1 in my parents' bedroom. they weren't often used. we spent a lot of time outside, but we never sat out on the front porch. we never even had furniture out there. we had folding lawn chairs and a swing we used in the back yard.

    i've seen a lot of dog trot houses out in the country but never any in the city. i can't imagine why.

    i agree that most public spaces are kept much too cold in the summer. i keep a hooded sweat jacket in the car to wear if we stop someplace to eat. brrrrr!

  6. It IS interesting that you don't see the dogtrot style houses in the cities. Could be they were there once, but have since been demolished to make way for progress.

    I recall that we got our first AC window unit when I was about 9 years old. My mother didn't like it and it was returned to Sears! But soon afterward, we got another one, a different one, and kept it. Two others were soon added to other rooms. I think the reason the first one didn't meet expectations is we turned it down way too low and it kept freezing up, plus we had to sit around in sweaters. I smile now as I think about that!

  7. The firm has staff that is on call 24 hours for air conditioning installation marietta. They boast of a number of fully equipped customer service vehicles which are responsive to the needs of clients in Marietta. The firm specializes in heat pumps, pump repair, and general air conditioner repairs.

  8. Before, living in a home without an air conditioner reflected a simple life. But today, most homes have AC units installed. I guess, we are simply adapting to the changes as well. The fact that we now have a warmer environment, we really need appliances that will help us keep our home cool and cozy. Well, you can still do what you used to before you had an AC in your home. It feels great to experience those things from time to time. :)
    Levi Eslinger @ Capital Plumbing and Heating

  9. Air conditioning has, indeed, brought comfort to our lives. Like all other technology, it has its drawbacks. Of course, one is higher electrical bills. The key is to use it efficiently. It would be good to periodically turn the air conditioning unit off and enjoy the breeze, especially if the weather's good. Not only would it save electricity, you can also enjoy how it was in the good old days.

    Chris Meier @

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  11. Air conditioning is a way of living now. Yes, the days when people gathered to sit on the porch on the summer evening is lovely, but the world has changed so much since then. With the growing instances of global warming, the air outside might not be enough to relieve us from heat, certainly not in the middle of the day.

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