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The Air-conditioned Century
The story of how a blast of cool, dry air changed America
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
Although air conditioning had made many inroads into factories, commercial establishments, and office buildings prior to World War II, its penetration into any one of these areas, and especially into the residential market, remained shallow. The 1930s had seen the cooling of Pullman cars and cafeterias, of hospitals and ocean liners, of hotels and funeral parlors. But the air-conditioning industry still had not fulfilled its promise of revolutionizing indoor life in America.
As Fortune magazine observed in an article about the Carrier Corporation published in 1938: “The market spread out rather than up. With ‘every inclosed space’ as its touted potential market, the industry reached into almost every type of inclosed space, and got no further. Out of 22,000,000 wired homes in the U.S.—and that is where real volume sales were expected to blossom—less than 0.25 per cent can yet boast so much as an air-conditioned room.”
Part of the problem was price. It cost at least $1,500 to air-condition a home in the 1930s, $400 to buy the smallest portable cooler on the market. But even at $1,200, a 1938 Fortune survey revealed, two-thirds of the public still would not pay to air-condition their homes. And when the Kelvinator Corporation introduced the fully air-conditioned Kelvin Home in 1936 for only $7,500, extolling centralized cooling as “one of the most important changes in our future sociological, artistic, and technical approach to the health and happiness of millions,” sales did not match expectations.
This suggested an even more fundamental problem: The industry had not yet convinced people they actually needed air conditioning in their homes. As early as 1931 a Chicago magazine called The Aerologist had published an editorial headlined “Wanted, An Air-Conditioning Flivver,” advocating the mass production of an inexpensive, home cooling unit that, it predicted, “would soon make air-conditioning more of a necessity than the radio or even the automobile….” But Carrier was no Henry Ford, and his first home units, such as the “Atmospheric Cabinet,” were bulky, expensive, difficult to install, and likely to break down. The company sold only a thousand of them over a three-year period and lost $1.3 million on the venture. In the wake of this miserable failure, the Carrier Corporation retreated to the industrial and commercial market, all but abandoning its effort to develop a reliable, Model-T air-conditioner for the home: even as late as 1948, in a confidential study of the residential air-conditioning market, company officials concluded that the profit potential in this area was not attractive.
By 1953 the “rump of a room conditioner bulging out the window” was as common as a TV antenna.
All this was to change dramatically in the early 1950s. Within just five years of Carrier’s assessment, the demand for home air conditioning increased more than tenfold, and the company that started it all was left out in the cold. Sales of room air conditioners jumped from 74,000 units in 1948 to 1,045,000 in 1953. Dealers sold out $250 million worth of equipment in 1952 and had to turn away 100,000 customers.
What accounted for this sudden surge was the arrival, at long last, of the air-conditioning flivver—a simple, dependable, self-contained box that could be plugged into an electrical outlet—and the formulation of a new, more sophisticated marketing strategy designed to convince people that a cool home was a necessity. Companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and Chrysler, all more attuned to the consumer market than Carrier, had entered the business and were quick to perceive that air conditioners could be better sold as appliances than as equipment to be installed by contractors.
As with many other household appliances, the pitch for air conditioners was directed mainly at women. If, according to the ideology of the time, a woman’s place was in the home, then she ought to be as comfortable there as possible. The actress Betty Furness appeared in television commercials for Westinghouse talking about the pleasures of an air-conditioned kitchen. Jack Davies, an air-conditioning salesman in Texas at the time and now the senior vice-president of Montgomery Engineering in New Jersey, remembers cosponsoring fashion shows at Neiman-Marcus to convince women that they could wear designer clothes in their own homes without fear of damage caused by the effects of heat and humidity. And the National Association of Home Builders financed a major research study in the early 1950s, which found that families living in air-conditioned homes slept 10 percent longer during the summer, enjoyed their food more, did nearly three times as much entertaining, and spent only two-thirds the time cleaning house as did their non-air-conditioned counterparts. The study also found that wives spent more time on hobbies, husbands brought home more work from the office, and babies suffered less from heat rash.