“Climate Control” Transcript
This is the transcript of “Climate Control: A History of Heating and Cooling,” broadcast in March 2010. You can listen to the entire episode here.
Peter Onuf: From VFH Radio in Charlottesville, Virginia, this is “BackStory.”
Peter Onuf: In the days before central heating, home was where the hearth was and come winter, you’d better not stray too far.
Howell Harris: Doing the drying of the dishes, the moment that you’d turn around from the fire, the towel goes frozen hard in your hands.
Peter: I’m Peter Onuf.
Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayres.
Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today, on “BackStory,” the history of indoor comfort from the Franklin Stove to freon, how has climate control changed the way we live and why have proponents of fresh air resisted so strenuously.
Ed: We’ll also hear about the man who brought ice cream to the tropics and how movie theaters cooled their patrons before AC.
Tape: They had a roof that they opened up and as soon as it got dark, I’d go up there and push it.
Ed: The history of getting warm in winter and cool in summer coming up on “BackStory.” First, the news.
[music and pitch from Producer Tony Field]
Peter: This is “BackStory” with us, the American History Guys. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy.
Ed: I’m Ed Ayers, your 19th century guy.
Brian: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy.
Brian: Last fall, a guy named Dan Filene bought a house outside of Portland, Maine. Good neighborhood. Plenty of space. There was only one real issue with the house. It came without a furnace.
Dan Filene: I think that’s why we got a good deal on it. [laughs] We were the only people really interested in it, I think.
Brian: You have pictures of your house up on your blog and it looks, and I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, but it looks like a completely regular normal suburban house.
Dan Filene: Yeah. I think the neighbors don’t suspect anything, based on the outside appearance of our house.
Brian: So they’re not suspicious that you’re constantly lingering a little longer than you should around their radiators?
Dan Filene: [laughs] Well, our friends, of course, know what we’re up to, but the neighbors across the street, I don’t think they’ve asked.
Brian: What they’re up to is this: Dan and his girlfriend, Jordan, have renounced central heating, not because they have to, but because they want to. Partly, it’s an environmental thing. Partly, it’s a money saver, but there’s also what we might a civic dimension to all of this. Back in 2008, when oil prices were going through the roof, Dan started worrying that his fellow Mainers might actually start leaving the state and leaving for good and he wanted to reassure people that it was all going to be okay, that we all could make do if we had to with just a little less heat. After all, people have lived without furnaces before, right? Surely they could live like that again.
Peter: On each episode of “BackStory,” we pick a topic from the present world and spend an hour exploring its historical context. Today, our topic is “Climate Control—The History of Artificial Heating and Cooling in America.” What was life like before the age of the thermostat and when did our modern expectations of comfort take shape? How did new technologies change the way people lived? What have been the benefits and what have been the costs?
Ed: A little later on, we’ll hear from a historian who studies the early days of woodstoves and another who writes about the advent of air conditioning a century later. We’ll also hear the story of the man who started the global trade in ice, but, first, we’re going to hand things back to our 20th century, Brian, and his thick-skinned friend in Maine.
Brian: We found Dan Filene via his blog, “The Cold House Journal,” where he chronicles the in and outs of his life without central heating. Now, Dan will be the first to tell you that plenty of Americans heat their homes using only wood and, yes, the Cold House does have a woodstove, but what really sets Dan and Jordan apart is they hardly ever use that woodstove. Then, again, they do go to work every day in heated offices. I reached Dan in that heated office on an early February morning and I asked him how life was going back at Cold House.
Dan Filene: Oh, it’s been relatively warm up there this week. It’s been in the 30s outside and the house downstairs was about 50 when I woke up. The bedroom was about 44.
Dan Filene: Yeah, for us, that’s been warm.
Brian: And when you walked into your office, what would you say the temperature was?
Dan Filene: Oh, my office was probably 72 or so.
Brian: Oh, my goodness.
Dan Filene: Yeah. [laughs] Actually, ironically, my office was so warm last night I had to crack a window and I forgot to close it overnight, so that probably kept my office from being in the 80s when I came in this morning.
Brian: So, Dan, what was it like when you stepped out from underneath the covers in 44 degrees?
Dan Filene: I don’t notice that as being unusual anymore. I really don’t. I don’t run. I don’t hurry to get more clothes on. There have been some moments of discomfort, putting your hands on a cold aluminum laptop first thing in the morning is jarring. Jordan reports that the toilet seat is jarring, but I’ve found that all of those experiences are more than balanced out by the real pleasure of going from a cold experience to a warm one and remembering, oh, yeah, this heat is really something that we ought to appreciate. Typically, here in the winter, indoors, you’re literally isolated from the outdoors, from nature, and you don’t have much sense that if you have a good, modern furnace, you wouldn’t know in the morning whether it’s 15 below or 15 above.
Brian: That’s my objective in life, Dan, I have to tell you.
Dan Filene: [laughs]
Brian: Is to not know what it’s like outside.
Dan Filene: Right, right, and I say, you know, we live here and we have a fascinating cyclical climate here. It’s really kind of pleasant to my mind to have a least a bit more connection to that. I don’t want to live outdoors year round personally, but it’s nice to know a little bit more about what’s happening and kind of experience it with your body.
Brian: Well, Dan, what do you think about this whole notion of comfort in light of your experience? I mean, how has it changed your whole understanding of comfort?
Dan Filene: That’s a good question. I’d say I’ve learned two things: one is that people are marvelously adaptable psychologically and also maybe even physiologically. And the second thing is it’s not something I really considered at the start, but you need to be able to have some control over the temperature in your house, for example, and if you feel like you could turn up the heat, if you absolutely needed it or you can move to a warmer room in your house, just that knowledge really gives you a lot more comfort.
Dan Filene: Being cold and having no control over it and not knowing how long it will go on for you is a miserable experience and if out of financial necessity or some other sort of coercion, you don’t have a say in the matter, that really changes how comfortable you are, even at the same temperature, I think.
Brian: Well, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you, Dan, and all I can say is, stay warm.
Dan Filene: Great. Thanks.
Brian: That’s Dan Filene, a psychiatrist in Portland, Maine. You can read more about his experiments in heat-free living at coldhousejournal.com.
music: “I really can’t stay. Baby, it’s cold outside. I’ve got to go away. Baby, it’s cold out there.”
Ed: Boy, I’ll tell you, that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “room temperature.” [laughs]
Ed: So, Peter, was what the room temperature in, say, Colonial New England in the 17th and 18th centuries? Is he reconnecting with an old pattern or is this actually colder than it would’ve been back then?
Peter: Well, I’d say the front side of Dan is [laughs] is actually not connecting with the Colonial experience, but the backside is. What I mean to say is that heat in Colonial houses would be an open hearth and would be very very local. I mean, so local that you’d get toasty in front and you’d be still chilly behind.
Ed: I guess you could turn around
Peter: You could turn around.
Brian: That wasn’t invented until your century. [laughs]
Peter: And I think our modern idea of comfort is to have a more general homogenous universal condition, that is, that we’re warm all over and so the technological challenge is how do you deliver heat in a…
Brian: That’s really interesting.
Peter: …general way so that you can move around a room, for instance, and not suffer these extreme variations going from place to place.
Ed: And only one name comes to mind.
Ed: Benjamin Franklin.
Ed: So, tell us about the Franklin Stove, Peter.
Peter: Well, the Franklin Stove was one of Franklin’s great early life inventions. It was in 1742.
Ed: Wow, that is early.
Peter: Yeah. While he was still working as a printer before he retired very early in life to become, in effect, a public man and the Franklin Stove was notable for its efficient burning of wood. We still do variations on the Franklin Stove today and the basic idea, it’s an anti-open-hearth fire system. It’s slow burning and the heat is radiating out from the stove itself, because most heat in an open hearth will go up the chimney and gone.
Ed: And that’s what this marvelous invention of the stove is doing. It’s modulating both the air intake and the air outtake, right?
Peter: Yes, exactly right. And that’s the secret of comfort because with that modulation, and you can regulate the speed of burning or how quickly the coal or the wood is burning, then you can regulate the temperature and it will be more or less even, at least compared to that old idea of front and back than a regular wood fire.
Ed: Well, I feel so patriotically proud that such a wonderful device has the name of our Founding Fathers on it, and I don’t doubt that the Franklin Stove was important, but I have to share something with you that you might not like that much, Peter—
Ed: It’s from a conversation I had with a guy named Howell Harris. He’s an historian at Durham University in England and he writes about the early days of cast iron stoves and Tony, can you queue that tape?
[sound of tape queuing up]
Howell Harris: The Franklin Stove was a failure. It was a failure commercially. It didn’t sell. It didn’t even work terribly well unless you had Benjamin Franklin to work it.
Ed: Peter, are you okay with that?
Peter: Ummm, well, I’m having some trouble, Ed. This is upsetting to me. [laughs] I mean, I actually like Franklin. He’s maybe one of my favorite Founding Fathers, but he didn’t invent everything. I recognize that. Actually, it was Thomas Jefferson who invented everything.
Ed: Between the two, I was wondering if there was any more American history. You know, they pretty much invented it all. Well, hang in there, Peter, because, frankly, it gets worse. Howell Harris told me that the idea of building a fire inside a metal box to maximize fuel efficiency had been around a long time before Benjamin Franklin designed these stoves in the 1740s and the Germans had been doing it for decades and a lot of them actually brought stoves with them when they started settling in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the 18th century. So, this Franklin Stove, it wasn’t even Franklin’s idea in the first place.
Howell Harris: No, Benjamin Franklin observed the stoves that European settlers had brought with them. There were a few in Boston when he was a kid and there were a lot more in Philadelphia and surrounding regions by the time that he was an adult pursuing his careers. He made very very few design changes of his own and they were mostly a really bad idea.
Ed: I’m so glad that the 18th century guy is not here to hear this. As a 19th century guy, I have no stake in this, so please continue.
Howell Harris: Well, what happened, I mean, even with the Franklin Stove is that people took a device that didn’t work terribly well and they improved it. They simplified it. They stripped out the features of it that Benjamin Franklin had been proudest of and they turned it into something that actually worked and they gave it his name because, of course, by the 1780s, he was a national hero, so the Franklin Stoves are not the stoves that were invented by Benjamin Franklin. They’re the stoves that carried Benjamin Franklin’s brand name.
Ed: But he was not the beneficiary of the brand name.
Howell Harris: No.
Ed: Other people were exploiting it for their benefit.
Howell Harris: Yeah, and he wasn’t worried about that at all. He didn’t try to make too much money on it, which is just as well because he wouldn’t have.
Howell Harris: Anyway, so the Franklin Stove in its simplified form turns into something that takes this new technology into more houses and then what we recall as kind of the German stove, that gets improved, too, and made lighter, made more durable, made more elegant, made more functional, made cheaper, and put all of those things together and you have the bases of a product that can build its own market. By 1860, one million stoves are sold in a year and by 1870, it’s more than two million in a year, so you’re talking about durable appliances that are being sold one into every four or five American households raising the internal temperature in winter, first of all, into the 60s and eventually into the low 70s, to something that we’d recognize as comfortable today. It’s a revolution in people’s experience of comfort.
Ed: That’s Howell Harris, a historian in Durham, England. Now, we’ll hear more from him in a few minutes, but first, we’re going to take a quick break, so get up and throw another log on the fire or cruise on over to backstoryradio.org to see what others are saying about today’s topic.
Peter: We’ll be back in a minute with more about the history of heating and cooling in America.
[music—“Light My Fire”]
Peter: This is “BackStory,” the show that takes a topic from the here and now and explores its historical context. I’m the 18th century guy, Peter Onuf.
Ed: I’m the 19th century guy, Ed Ayers.
Brian: And I’m your 20th century guy, Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about how Americans have warmed themselves up when it’s cold and cooled themselves down when it’s warm and about the impact that’s had on people’s lives. As we do with each of our shows, we’ve been inviting your comments on the topic on backstoryradio.org and our producers have invited a few of you to join us on the phone.
[phone dial music]
Peter: First up today, we have Diana in Hillsboro, Oregon. Diana, welcome to “BackStory.”
Caller Diana: Thank you very much.
Peter: And we’re talking about climate control today and what’s on your own mind?
Caller Diana: What’s on my mind is what amount of labor was devoted to heating indoor spaces before technology made things easier and what did Americans do with all that free time?
Peter: [laughs] No, hold on, hold on. Oh, when they didn’t have to heat spaces, spend a lot of energy, so to speak?
Ed: They created a democracy, didn’t they?
Brian: They’re called radio shows.
Peter: Diana, you get it all wrapped up there from the beginning. Yeah, what happened to the heating of homes when it became easier?
Caller Diana: Yeah.
Peter: It used to be really hard. It used to be so hard that you’d have to get your animals to join you for a cozy evening in the house. No, I’m joking. Americans always kept their animals outside, but they did burn a lot of wood and crowd around the fire and cutting wood was a task and a half.
Ed: I mean, large parts of New England were actually denuded, weren’t they, Peter?
Peter: Oh, yes. Absolutely. By around 1800, you had to go maybe a hundred miles to get any real forests.
Brian: And, Peter or Ed, I mean, how did this work? Did families cut their own firewood? Were there folks who did this and sold it early on in the 19th century?
Ed: Well, you have all those, but every farm would have a wood lot.
Peter: A wood lot, right?
Ed: And it’s kind of like, you know, fallow fields and things like that. There’d be part of the farm, a large part of it, that would be set aside as the place where you would go and harvest lumber to heat your house with.
Peter: That got harder and harder to do. You know the real secret—that things had got so cozy in these New England homes is they reproduced too much and then there were too many kids and then they all had to have their farms. Many of them moved out west and this tremendous mobility and energy sources has a lot to do with the movement of settlements. It’s to get to new sources of energy.
Brian: So they were looking for electrical sockets, so to speak?
Peter: Well, that’s kind of a metaphor from your century.
Brian: Yes, of course. So, guys, is it too simplistic to say—
Ed: I’m sure it is, Brian.
Brian: Well, I’ll say it anyway. [laughs]
Peter: It goes without saying.
Brian: When people started purchasing coal, is it fair to say that they started working in factories or spending more time growing things to pay for the coal rather than going out and chopping the wood? You know, it’s a second part of the question. What did people start—
Peter: What did they do? You know, it depends on what their resources are and whether they can afford the fuel. If you could operate effectively in the market because you had a source of income, then you’re increasingly comfortable and, yes, you have more leisure. You can do more things and that’s what Diana was getting at—it’s the origins of the middle class.
Caller Diana: I’d like to add another dimension. It changed the social structure which was having servants in the home—
Peter: That’s right.
Caller Diana: Because we didn’t need them and they then went out to work for the energy companies, so now it’s isolated the middle class to just the family and no longer having servants in the home.
Brian: Just the way the middle class wanted. The middle class wants to be isolated.
Caller Diana: Yeah.
Ed: Because new standards of intimacy and a family return to now it’s just the nuclear families, the real family, and borders and things like that are just kind of in the way. You don’t really want servants beyond a certain point. I think it’s one of the things ironically that isolates slavery in the American south is that when servants decline in the North, the idea of living with people all of the time just seems especially wrong.
Peter: Well, then we get isolated that then we develop psychoses, or least neuroses, and we need therapy.
Caller Diane: [laughs]
Brian: Because we’re bored to death and so I think that’s all of American history in a nutshell right there.
Ed: From the wood lot to the psychiatrist’s couch.
Peter: Yeah. Right. And it’s been great talking to Diana and thank you.
Caller Diana: Thank you. Bye bye.
Ed: If you’re just tuning in, this is “BackStory” and we’re talking about the history of heating and cooling. Earlier in the show, we played a bit from my interview with Howell Harris, a historian of technology in England. He was describing what he calls the stove revolution of the mid-19th century when huge numbers of Americans left behind the open hearths of their childhoods and started heating their homes with cast iron stoves instead. We’re going to return to that interview now. I asked Harris to give me a sense of what winter was like in the North before the stove revolution really caught fire.
Howell Harris: Doing the drying the dishes, the moment that you’d turn around from the fire, the towel goes frozen hard in your hands and your bed will be cold and damp. Everywhere will be cold and damp. You’ll just get used to the fact that through the winter you’ll have no comfort at all.
Ed: So that’s the before. Here’s the after.
Howell Harris: The after begins for different people in different places and at different times, but by the 1840s, Americans begin to refer to the states as the land of stoves and as far as they’re concerned, it sort of distinguishes their country from the European countries that they go to visit. Americans have comfort and other people don’t.
Ed: So, what did it mean to live in a comfortable home?
Howell Harris: In the beginning, the change that having a stove would make will be is that your fuel consumption will drop by perhaps as much as two-thirds.
Howell Harris: And you’ll get more comfort for all that. The whole room will be warm, not just a few feet around the fire, and, of course, when people can keep warm like that, then they begin to alter the ways that they live in the houses. If they’re wealthy enough, they’ll buy perhaps a parlor stove, too, or they’ll put a stove in the drafty hallway and all of a sudden, then the warmth will go upstairs and the bedrooms won’t be freezing either, and what that will mean will be that, for example, people can live in more than one room of a house in winter. Different members of the family can get away from one another.
Ed: Always a good thing. [laughs]
Howell Harris: It is a good thing. I mean, it is a good thing to at least have the choice and it means that you can do things in winter indoors that are inactive. You find, for example, that clergymen and university teachers are really enthusiastic about stoves by the 1820s because in both cases, you’re talking about men who spent a lot of the time even in winter, sitting down, reading, writing sermons, etc., not things that keep you naturally terribly terribly warm, so if you can have a warm study, then the quality of your life is just transformed.
Ed: So, this is such an obviously good and natural thing. Surely, no one had anything negative to say about it, did they?
Howell Harris: They absolutely did. British visitors, when they would go into Canada in the 1790s and go into the east coast towns and cities from the early 19th century, they complained bitterly about how comfortable it was, how warm it was indoors, how few drafts there were, and they were absolutely certain it was really bad for people’s health, but the fact is that quite a few Americans thought the same thing and part of it is just nostalgia. Early 19th century America was a society experiencing very very rapid change and people can see the familiar forms of life disappearing around them, and they’re quite attached to the open fire, to the image of the family clustered around the fire. They just don’t get quite the same emotional satisfaction out of looking at a black iron box, so by the 1840s, you have really significant cultural commentators. There’s a man called Andrew Jackson Downing, who is—
Ed: Very important, who invented sort of the American style of home.
Howell Harris: Absolutely. He invented the American style of home and it’s kind of ironic because quite a lot of the houses that he designed were actually habitable because of stove or furnace heating. It was larger rooms opening into one another, more air inside the house, but he himself was deeply suspicious of the stove. He called stove heated air the “favorite poison of America.” Thoreau was very suspicious of stoves, too. Emerson was suspicious of stoves. You find loads and loads of New England worthies who are actually by that time, they’re a generation beyond the introduction of stoves into New England and they’re looking towards a better past and the open fire is the symbol of the better past.
Ed: So, nostalgia takes only 25 years to create?
Howell Harris: It’s quicker than that. In Massachusetts, they’re nostalgic for the good old days by the 1820s.
Ed: That’s Howell Harris, a history professor at Durham University in England. He’s created a digital archive of images of the 19th century stoves he was talking about. We’ll link to it from our own site, backstoryradio.org.
Peter: Well, the point I took from that really great interview, Ed, was that we’re just going to be nostalgic regardless.
Peter: I mean, that’s sort of genetically hardwired.
Ed: I’m kind of nostalgic for the earlier part of this show. [laughs]
Peter: But what’s interesting here is the tension between comfort and family values.
Peter: Because when we had comfortable accommodations and rooms of our own, that is, Virginia Woolf could go off [laughs] to a room of her own, then we didn’t have that kind of enforced togetherness that we get nostalgic for. If the only place you can avoid freezing is huddled around an open fire, then you can make believe—
Brian: And that’s only half of you that’s not freezing. [laughs]
Peter: [laughs] That’s right. And you can say, oh, wasn’t it wonderful in those days when we were all huddled around the fire keeping our front sides warm and our backsides cold, and when comfort comes along, we disperse, so we’re getting nostalgic for conditions of necessity in which we had no choice and in a way, that’s sort of the downside of choice. In some ways, we’re nostalgic for not having choices and that’s what family values really are all about.
Ed: So, in many ways, America becomes the land of comfort.
Ed: Partly because, I guess, there’s so many darn trees here, we can afford to and that really was the source of fuel, all the way through the 18th century, right?
Peter: Yeah. I think it’s the combination of the size of what we would call the middle class and that there’re a lot of people who command surplus wealth. The availability of fuel supply but I also think it’s because it was seen very early on and I say it’s coming out of the revolutionary enlightenment period as a kind of cultural entitlement. Comfort is something to which you can aspire. It takes an aspirational society to make something like comfort so important as a social phenomena.
Ed: But speaking about the revolution and the enlightenment, it’s not comfort in the sense of being carried about on feathered pillows, right?
Peter: No, no. That’s a great point. What you’re describing is a distinction between aristocratic comfort in which you can command the labor of others and at great expense and the great expense of other people’s labor, you can achieve a kind of condition that other people can only serve. They can’t aspire to. One of the aspects of American comfort that’s so important is that it’s within your power to make yourself comfortable by your control over the climate in your room, over the way it’s lit, over the way it’s furnished.
Ed: So this is the Home Depot of comfort. I mean, we’re doing it ourselves.
Peter: We’re doing it ourselves. I think it’s very democratic.
Ed: I can’t help but notice a strong regionalist bias to all that we’re talking about which the whole idea is getting warm.
Peter: Yes, a good point. A good point.
Ed: And, you know, there’s large parts of the country where getting warm is not really a problem. It’s the getting cool and you do see that southerners in their architecture certainly try to do what they can to get their comfort. What they don’t have is any technological means. A stove simply isn’t worth as much in the South, right?
Ed: And living in largely rural areas, you’re not going to have distributed water and light, so I think what you see is the South both holds onto this older version of servant-based comfort.
Ed: Partly because of slavery and partly because of being a more rural environment, but what it does mean, though, is that in the 19th century, when northerners are looking for indexes of southern backwardness, it’s the absence of plumbing, running water, electricity, all those kinds of things. It actually becomes seen as the very embodiment of what a backward place looks like. They’re not even comfortable.
Brian: Yeah. Well, guys, we’ve talked about discomfort in the North and discomfort in the South. The next story we’re going to turn to really combines the two. In 1805, a 23-year-old in Boston came up with the business scheme that sounded completely nuts on the face of it. His name was Frederick Tudor and his plan was to cut large blocks of ice from nearby ponds. Okay so far. That’s what they did. But Tudor wanted to ship them to the Caribbean. Boston newspapers had a field day with the idea but Tudor had the last laugh. He somehow succeeded in making it with his ice to Martinique and selling what remained in the form of—you got it—ice cream. He would go on to export New England Ice all over the world. “”BackStory” producer Catherine Moore has a story of the man who eventually became known as the Ice King.
Catherine Moore: Small successes aside, there were problems. Besides ice’s stubborn tendency to, you know, melt over time, the truth was that even here in the United States no one really knew what to do with the stuff. In those days, the gold standard for drink temperature hovered somewhere between tepid and milk warm. Ice drinks would’ve struck imbibers as strange, even unhealthy, but Tudor maintained that once a man, even a skeptic, drank from the cool cup of the Ice King, he would never be satisfied with lukewarm dregs again. He even tried a little experiment at a Charleston, South Carolina boarding house. Sidling up to the communal table, he presented a four-gallon jar of ice water.
Voiceover: This was the subject of ridicule to the household. Every one of the boarders declared that they would not touch the water and endanger their health. I found that the high resolution and firm determination was soon overcome without any persuasion of mine, that after time, every man drank the water and no other and that four gallons was not enough.
Catherine Moore: Like Americans discovering the cappuccino, they just didn’t know what they had been missing. Once they found out, though, there was no going back. They were hooked and Tudor happily played the part of the drug pusher. At first, he donated ice to barkeepers so they could charge the same price for warm and cool drinks.
Voiceover: “A man whose has drank his drinks cold at the same expense for one week can never be presented with them warm again. When we have persuaded 100 persons by means of our same price plan, these 100 will soon carry with them 100 more and that ratio will compound faster than we can calculate.”
Catherine Moore: Tudor knew from the outset that the pleasures of his ice were habit forming, but ultimately, his success would depend on the perception of ice as a necessity, not a luxury, so even while he shivered in debtors prison, even while his journal entries rang with increasing despair, even while he manically hacked off chunks of an iceberg to stock his Caribbean ice houses during a warm New England winter, he kept his prices low, low enough that even the masses could partake on a daily basis and where luxury, necessity and availability meet, comfort is born.
By 1857, Tudor was a millionaire. Americans were clinking chilled glasses in celebration of his clear genius and the icebox had taken its place among the necessities of comfort in American homes. Nearly 150,000 tons of ice were shipped that year from Boston to markets as far away as India. Staring out from his cabin on Walden Pond, one of the sites of Tudor’s ice harvesting operations, Henry David Thoreau marveled that the water he observed might some day be mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.
In his twilight years, Tudor opened up an amusement park as his country estate which featured, along with ice cream, of course, a cool natural spring. He called it Maolis, siloam spelled backwards, because it reminded him of the Biblical pool where Jesus cured a man of blindness. By the time he died in 1864, Tudor had cured Americans of their blindness to the thing they didn’t know they had needed all along—the cold comfort of ice.
Peter: That’s “BackStory” producer Catherine Moore.
Brian: It’s time for another break. When we get back, we’ll move on to the technology that made my childhood Miami at least somewhat bearable. That’s right—air conditioning.
Peter: While we’re gone, drop in at our website and tell us your best story about heating or cooling. You can find us at backstoryradio.org. More “BackStory” coming up in a minute.
Peter: This is “BackStory,” the show that turns to the past to understand the world around us today. I’m Peter Onuf, historian of 18th century America.
Ed: I’m Ed Ayers, historian of 19th century America.
Brian: And I’m Brian Balogh, historian of the 20th century. Today on the show, we’re taking on the history of climate change but not the kind global climate change that we’re used to hearing about today. We’re talking about how people have gone about changing their own immediate climates, be it heating, air conditioning, or as we just heard a minute ago, sending huge blocks of ice thousands of miles.
Peter: We’re going to go back to the phones now. Next up on the line we have Travis calling from Fountain Valley, California. Travis, welcome to the show.
Caller Travis: Thank you.
Peter: We’re talking about climate control. Crank up our thermostat. [laughs]
Caller Travis: Well, you guys should probably know then what I do for a living is that I am a mechanical engineer who designs air conditioning systems for commercial buildings.
Peter: All right. We have been waiting for you.
Ed: Travis, do you make house calls? Because it’s incredibly hot here in this studio.
Caller Travis: Well, what I like to tell my wife is that I can’t actually turn any nuts and bolts but I can draw you a really lovely picture of what might be required.
Ed: Well, you have a lot in common with historians. We don’t actually make things happen, but we can talk about it, right?
Peter: Yeah. Well, give us a picture of what’s on your mind.
Caller Travis: Well, I had a story that a client of mine told me years ago and I thought maybe you guys could confirm or deny or flush out the story a little bit for me. What he was talking about was—he called them the alphabet buildings—and this is a client of mine, so he was an architect, and he said that if you were to fly over a major metropolitan area in the U.S. in some year prior to, and I don’t know what year that is, that what you would see from above is a whole bunch of buildings shaped like L’s and U’s and O’s and H’s and T’s that he would call the alphabet buildings and the rationale there was that prior to commercial air conditioning, most buildings could only be 40- to 50-foot wide so that everyone could be within 25 foot of an operable window, that they’d have access to some outside air and not get stuffy and not get overly hot.
Ed: So you’re questioning the validity of that? [laughs]
Caller Travis: So I’m questioning the validity of the story and then I’m also wondering what that year is.
Brian: Okay. The year for the very first of the air conditioned buildings to take what was going to come, I can’t give you a specific year. I think the Metropolitan Museum in New York was 1905, 1906, that it was air conditioned. The very wealthy in New York began to get air conditioning in the first decade, second decade of the 20th century, the skyscraper sooner rather than later, so we’re talking about the ’20s and the ’30s, becomes air conditioned. What that had to do with the shape of the building, Travis, I’m going to ask Ed that.
Ed: Because these buildings were generally built in the 19th century, the second half of the 19th century and if you think of the classic example of the building of the sort you’re talking about, it’s the tenement and the shape of those was dumbbell, okay? And it was exactly for what your friend said which was a way to have a shaft, a space, in the middle of the building. You could put as many people as possible in there. What you’re looking for are as many exposed surfaces as possible so there can be as many windows as possible so you can put as many families as possible per square foot and until you have air conditioning, that’s all you can do and so I think that’s why these buildings fit in that niche between large-scale urban housing for largely immigrant families but before you start having the possibility of air conditioning those spaces, so I’m guessing it’s the period between 1870 and 1930 would be the window I would think.
Brian: And Travis, what kind of systems do you work on? Personal ones? Individual ones? Large systems?
Caller Travis: We’re generally in the larger commercial range and the reason that the idea is so interesting to me is that I rarely work on a building whose floor plate is less than, say, 60 foot on one side and 70 to 80 foot on the other side, and so the idea that at some point that was just not possible until the advent of large-scale commercialization and availability of commercial air conditioning is just interesting to me.
Brian: Thanks for calling.
Ed: Thank you, Travis.
Caller Travis: Okay. Appreciate it, guys.
Ed: So, Brian, you mentioned skyscrapers and department stores as a couple of the first places where people would have experienced air conditioning back in the first few decades of the 20th century, but that’s not where air conditioning really started, was it?
Brian: That’s right, Ed. The first time that air conditioning was actually used was in factories and it was used for lots of different products that could not be mass manufactured if the temperature of those products continued to change, so in the case of magazines, for instance, the ink wouldn’t run as the print runs continued and they used it for textiles so that the actual thread itself wouldn’t contract or expand depending on the amount of humidity in the air.
Ed: So, what you’re saying is that most people would’ve experienced air conditioning in the factories where they worked?
Brian: Well, it wasn’t really intended for the workers’ comfort. When you put it that way, it sounds, we think, today, you know, oh yeah, right, workers need to be comfortable, except this had nothing to do with the comfort of the workers working in those factories. It was all about consistency in a society that was incredibly driven by mass production.
Ed: Well, I’d like to think that some of those workers were a little bit more comfortable anyway [laughs] even if that wasn’t the purpose.
Brian: Yeah, and when it comes to actually experiencing directly what we associate air conditioning with—cooling—probably, most people would’ve had the kind of experience that Sidney Katz had. Now, loyal listeners to “BackStory” will remember Sidney as the grandfather of our senior producer, Tony Field. Sidney was born in New York City back in 1917 and a few days ago, I asked him where he first experienced air conditioning.
[sound of a rotary phone dial]
Sidney Katz: The first one was in the movie theater like the Paramount Theater on Broadway and you came in there, you came into another world.
Sidney Katz: It was cold and dry.
Brian: So did it make you feel— I mean, we talk about the movies as being a great escape in the ’30s. Did that cool air add to that sense of unreality and escape for that hour and a half?
Sidney Katz: I guess it did, yes.
Gail Cooper: Movie theaters were very early adopters. There was a sense that the movie theater was to give you a sense of luxury and the perfect climate was part of that.
Brian: That’s Gail Cooper, a historian at Lehigh University who’s perhaps the foremost academic authority on the history of air conditioning. She told me that in those heady early days of artificial cooling, it wasn’t about replacing the experience of being outdoors. It was about perfecting it. The engineers who designed those newfangled theater systems actually referred to them as manmade weather.
Gail Cooper: Not only did they control temperature and humidity, but they began to try to reproduce those other nice things about the natural climate and some of the early systems came with perfume systems.
Brian: Really? I’ve always wondered about perfume. So when was this that there was perfume systems?
Gail Cooper: As early as 1917.
Gail Cooper: Yes. Some of them came with different kind of lamps to mimic the natural wavelength of light outside. They came with fans that reproduced natural breezes and if you looked up at the ceiling, they would have little lights that mimicked stars and in that sense, air conditioning was just part of that, moving the best of nature indoors.
Brian: Now, you’ve got to keep in mind this manmade weather stuff Gail Cooper is describing, well, it applies to the high end of movie houses, but back in Brooklyn, where Sidney Katz grew up, things were a little more, let’s just say, primitive, and he should know. When he was a teenager in the 1930s, he worked as an usher in three different neighborhood theaters. The first one was cooled with fans, big noisy mechanical fans.
Sidney Katz: These theaters were built for the silent movie, so any aberrant noise was really of no significance.
Brian: That was the first theater he worked in. The second one had something a little closer to that whole manmade weather thing Gail Cooper was talking about, just without the manmade part.
Sidney Katz: They had a roof that could be opened up.
Brian: You’re kidding?
Sidney Katz: No, I’m not kidding.
Brian: Kind of like that new stadium in Dallas.
Sidney Katz: I was an usher there and as soon as it got dark, I’d go up there and sort of— I kind of could push it. They probably had a lot of good ball bearings on it, so it was easy to open it up, but we were right next to an elevated train so any time the elevated train went by, you would hear the noise in the theater, but apparently people didn’t mind it.
Brian: You didn’t have to close it each time you saw a train coming, did you?
Sidney Katz: No. No. [laughs] I guess people just adjusted to that.
Brian: Now, Sidney never got a job in one of those fancy air conditioned theaters uptown, but the third one he worked in was air cooled. That’s how the theater described it, on a big banner hanging under the marquee outside.
Sidney Katz: Now, they had one of these large horizontal circular fans up on the roof and under it was a large body of water so this cooled it somewhat. Not great, but it was cooler than the outside.
Brian: Did your theaters charge a little less than those frontline theaters?
Sidney Katz: Oh, my yes. [laughs] We charged, now hold on to your hat, 10 cents up until 6:00 o’clock and 50 cents after that. On Broadway, you paid a quarter. [music]
Brian: Now, it probably would be fair to say that Sidney thought of each of his three movie theater jobs as a little better than the one before and that’s because each one was a little cooler than the one before on those hottest Brooklyn summer evenings, but in the early days of air conditioning, not everybody agreed that it was such a great thing and it was no small task for the air conditioning industry to win their skeptics over. Fortunately, they had science in their corner. Here’s historian Gail Cooper again.
Gail Cooper: In 1922, research engineers published what they called the “Comfort Chart,” which was a chart of temperature and humidity levels at which most people were comfortable.
Brian: As I recall, at some point these engineers actually waged war on the term “fresh air” because to suggest that air was fresh outside by implication meant that it was not fresh inside.
Gail Cooper: A house that didn’t have fresh air might be subject to tuberculosis. It was a different time and people worried about health. They thought of the inside as sometimes being unhealthy, so you had open air schools that did not heat or close the windows. They often had classes outside year round. There were even open air schools in Chicago and they issued each student a fur-lined sleeping bag so they could sit in their desk all bundled up, but engineers pointed out that in the urban environment, air that comes in off the streets is not necessarily healthy or clean.
Gail Cooper: They thought, in fact, their machinery could restore to air its natural purity and that it was better than fresh air.
Brian: Now, I recall my first air conditioner in Miami being this window unit that made a lot of noise. In fact, there only one in our house. It was my parents’ bedroom and on really hot nights, we’d be allowed to stay up a little later and just watch TV and, in fact, it seems like air conditioning and TV went hand in hand after World War II.
Gail Cooper: And they certainly did.
Brian: And it hummed along and it dripped, but we also turned it off. We would open the windows to sleep at night. Until I read your book, I didn’t really even know why that was, but obviously my parents were of a generation who thought fresh air was better. Reading your book, I realize it’s kind of a battle between the engineers who wanted central air because it was efficient and, of course, they could control all the elements and those kind of old-fashioned people who wanted to be able to exercise individual control over their windows units, so who won? [laughs] I mean, I look around and I go back to Miami and everybody has central air conditioning. Everything is cooled, I mean. Have the window openers been defeated once and for all or are they coming back with the skyrocketing costs of energy?
Gail Cooper: Well, in the post-War period, we built air conditioning into our office buildings and into our homes. We have an architecture that is dependent upon mechanical ventilation and you can’t turn off the air conditioning system because the windows don’t open and all those big glass walls just absorb the heat, so it’s built right in and in that sense, it’s probably here to stay.
Brian: Gail Cooper is a history professor at Lehigh University. She’s the author of Air-conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment. Thank you very much for joining us today, Gail
Gail Cooper: Thank you, Brian, for having me.
Brian: Okay, Ed. Crank up the air conditioning because you’re going to be on the hot seat.
Ed: I’m ready.
Brian: It seems to me that one of the most dramatic changes in the South, I’d say the most dramatic change, is the civil rights revolution and I’d say that for the whole country actually.
Ed: Uh huh.
Brian: But, second, air conditioning made for a huge change because of the demographic impact and not just the South but Sunbelt areas in general.
Ed: You know, I think that’s a really good point, Brian, and it’s interesting how those two events of the civil rights movement and air conditioning sort of coincided to trigger the emergence of the American South as an okay international corporate headquarters and that civil rights removed the moral stigma that would’ve kept companies away and air conditioning removed the humidity stigma that…
Brian: [laughs] Yeah.
Ed: …kept people away and suddenly what had been sort of the bane of the South becomes its great bounty so we go from being, golly, who’d want to live down there to the Sunbelt. Come down. We’ll always be the perfect temperature.
Brian: So the climate down there changed in more ways than one, right, Ed? [laughs]
Ed: Yes, the political climate, the racial climate and the climate climate.
Peter: You know, I thought it was really interesting about this fresh air business. I think what occurred to me is the Fresh Air Fund that the New York Times runs every year, of sending…
Brian: Yes, that’s a great point.
Peter: …kids from the city out to the country. It’s this idea of a wholesome place and it’s, of course, partly associated with the climate but it’s more kind of a broad environmental thing and get them out into the fresh air, right?
Brian: Yes. Well, when I think of fresh air, Peter, I think all the way back to ye olden times of your period when people talked about miasma and the quality of the air. Was that the air or just the general atmosphere?
Peter: You know, the late modern equivalent of Colonial miasma is a sick building.
Ed: Yes, I know.
Peter: A sick building is a climate-controlled building and there is this problem is that then it becomes a closed system with pathogens.
Ed: Remember Legionnaires’ Disease, how scary was that? That we’re actually inventing these things in the ducts that are going to really be deadly. It’s like, yikes, if we can’t even condition the air, then what can we control.
Brian: I’ll tell you what we can control. We can control the end of this show. [laughs]
Brian: And we’ve reached it, but remember, the conversation continues online. Drop in at our website and let us know what you think of all of this. The address is backstoryradio.org. You can sign up for a Podcast there, subscribe to our newsletter and join us on Facebook and yes, now at Twitter.
Peter: Again, it’s all at backstoryradio.org. Don’t be a stranger.
Ed: “BackStory” is produced by Tony Field with Catherine Moore and Eric Verkerke. We had help from Lydia Wilson. Special thanks today to Matthew Gibson, aka the voice of the Ice King.
Peter: Jamal Millner mastered the show. Gabby Alter wrote our theme. “BackStory’s” executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
Brian: Major production support for “BackStory” is provided by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, committed to the idea that the future may learn from the past. Major support also comes from the University of Richmond offering a combination of the liberal arts with law, business, leadership studies and continuing education. More information is available at richmond.edu.
Peter: Support also comes from the David A. Harrison Fund for the President’s Initiatives at the University of Virginia, UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, The National Endowment for Humanities, Cary Brown-Epstein and the W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation, James Madison’s Montpelier, Marcus and Carole Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, Jay M. Weinberg and an anonymous donor.
Voiceover: Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Brian Balogh is a Professor of History at the University of Virginia and UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.