Sunday, July 24, 2011

Surviving the Heat

On the Thursday, July 21st evening as I began this post I was sitting on my front stoop, trying to stay cool, and doing an ok job of it if I say so myself. There was a very nice breeze, and I had a cool drink, so I felt pretty good.

The temperature Thursday was 34C, and that night it only dropped to 25C, plus humidity for both temperatures. Not at all comfortable, but at least I had a ceiling fan.

This got me to thinking about how our ancestors beat the heat prior to air conditioning. In some ways, in much the sames way as I do now. Find somewhere in the shade, with a breeze. Keep the doors and windows closed during the heat of the day. I can't close the shutters (don't have any), but I could install awnings to keep the sun out. Today I went to the beach with my family, and we all swam. That was nice. We took the car, 100 years ago we would have taken the train, but that is a detail, the broad outline was the same - picnic lunch, bathing suit, beach umbrella, and away we went.

So much for the happy view of dealing with the hot weather. The big advantage we have that our ancestors did not can be summed up in two words - Air Conditioning. When the heat simply becomes too much to bear, we can go to a mall, museum, cinema, or even mostly retreat to the comfort of our own homes. Prior to the 1920's (and the steadily increasing numbers of cinemas with air conditioning) the public had no escape as only the most specialized buildings and workplaces had any air cooling system at all.

Imagine living in a city in 1900 with temperatures in the low to mid 30's, plus humidex. The smoke in the air from coal fired water heaters and cook stoves. The smell of the increasingly common automobiles mixed with the horse dung and urine on the roads, and you live, like most people, in a two to five storey walk-up with no air conditioning or electricity. Add, on top of all that, the formality of the age when in public all the men were expected to wear long pants, a jacket and a hat at the least, and women were expected to were long dresses that went up to the neck and down to the wrists. At the very least one would be less than comfortable. If you were elderly, very young, or had breathing problems, an extended period of heat meant death.

Wonderful and idyllic as the past may seem to us now, it was by no means a bed of roses. While I do not have air conditioning myself, I am deeply grateful for the ability to escape to a mall, cinema, or museum when the heat becomes intolerable.

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