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Days Of Unconditioned Air

July 2024
3min read

I WAS TAUGHT TO REFER to it in mixed company only as “perspiration,” not sweat, but whatever it was flowed freely in the summer dog days of my youth, the 1920s and early 1930s. It headed the forehead, streaked the cheeks, and dropped off the chin. Ladies merely “glowed,” very likely because steady application with a fan does evaporate moisture; with skill and practice, older women of, say, nineteen or twenty (I was fifteen in 1929) could also employ fans with devastating effect on the opposite sex. Senators, judges, and Southern planters might wave them over the juleps—cause and effect taken together—but no boy might use them and retain the respect of his fellows. In school and college classrooms the obligatory jacket and tie made a scorcher worse, dampening the shirt and lengthening the hours. It was also the age of the soggy handkerchief, since whoever invented Kleenex was inexcusably tardy about it.

When Adam’s curse descended on me after college, to work by the sweat of my brow, I found the good book quite literally correct. Unlike college, office work kept on the steamiest days of July and August, and it kept Saturday mornings too. Fans whirred and gritty dust flew in the open windows of New York in the mid-thirties, collecting alike on the desks of the bosses and the troops like myself. I remember particularly employing my faint editorial abilities at the old humor magazine Judge , which in the summer of 1938 was teetering on the edge of well-deserved bankruptcy. We were reprinting material from years before, when Judge was a success, and between the ancient wheezes and the stale air of a shared cubicle whose solitary window was rusted shut, no fresh air of any kind reached me until the great hurricane of that year obligingly blew in the window. It was perhaps its one good deed. Judge blew away also very soon thereafter. I am astonished, however, to learn from Mr. Friedman’s adjoining article that it was that very magazine, of all businesses, that had the very first air-conditioning plant, produced by the inventive Willis Carrier in 1902. That was for the printers and their precious color presses; editors, presumably, are born to suffer.

A year or two later I was a very young editor on Life , which had been a humor magazine too and Judge ’s ancient rival but had been bought and reformed by Henry R. Luce. There was the boon of new material. There was a lofty floor in Rockefeller Center, but still no air conditioning. I mucked about in seersucker suits on hot days, but those costumes, which may look dandy at dawn, resemble unironed shirts by noon. Once I wrote a stirring Life editorial urging American male office workers to adopt British tropical-style shorts and open-neck shirts on steamy days; I even appeared, amid some unkind office laughter, in such garb for a day or two. Unmoved, the rest of the staff, America’s males, and the garment trades held the line. Things had at least advanced from my grandfather’s day, when the main change for summer was a straw hat instead of a derby.

AIR CONDITIONING came relatively early to transportation, especially at the Pullman Company, which was proud of its comfortable parlor cars, sleepers, and diners, taking the curse off long trips through the humid South and across the baking plains. It never seemed to work as well for the long-suffering commuter, who sweltered behind sealed windows when the device failed; since early systems depended on ice in the overhead, many a fine old car was rusted out in time. No one, apparently, has been able to this day to manufacture a bus with reliable air conditioning, at least for city use in New York. And that, when you consider the feckless way in which cities abandoned the durable, simple old trolley car, is an outright shame.

When summer came in the twenties, the trolley companies trotted out their open cars, with long rows of transverse wooden benches open to the breeze (curtains could be pulled down in case of rain). There was no aisle, and the conductors simply moved up and down along narrow, folding platforms at the side. The best place of all, which I always sought out as a boy, was the wide seat right behind the motorman, with nothing in front of him, or me, but the balmy, onrushing air. The trolley was, of course, too sensible and too unpolluting to last, but this is not the place to go into the misbehavior of Detroit and the oil companies. The opens began disappearing early, because they required two men, and I forsook the trolley myself in the early thirties for a Ford Roadster—wide open, too, and with a rumble seat. In that you might take a girl to the movies, which was where I first encountered the new refrigerated age.

The marquee, in my small town, was riveting. Simulated ice and snow hung down from it, and the sign proclaimed TWENTY DEGREES COOLER INSIDE! The film itself got second billing. Perhaps it was only fifteen degrees cooler, hut you often needed a sweater. A wet, cold air suffused the building, so imposing in the semi-darkness, so tacky when the lights went on afterward. The sensations linger after fifty years, remembering the walking out onto the unglamorous street in the warm, still air, depressed but easily revived by a soda across the street.

THE GREATEST institution of those times, however, was the porch, or in the grander word, veranda . A great deal of time was spent very happily on old-time verandas, sniffing the honeysuckle, consuming gallons of iced tea and ginger ale, singing, philosophizing, or simply watching the grass grow. Verandas that went around two or even three sides of a house were best of all—parents and friends in the wicker, young romance around the corner in the hammock, listening to the mockingbird, whispering, giggling, watching the moon. Not many houses are built with porches now, I suppose because of the cost, or for lack of a view. Besides, all too many of us are spending the golden hours in the air-conditioned indoors, glued to the tube. Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.

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