Air Conditioning: From Luxury to Necessity

Sure, you depend on your internet and cell phone, but do they have anything near the importance in your life that air conditioning does?

A girl is attempting to get a man's attention through the back patio glass.
"Baby, it's cool inside! A singed sun bather is invited to beat the heat inside an air-cooled Las Vegas hotel. Next: air-conditioned streets."

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For those of us born in the post-war years, the 1950s don’t seem so distant.  We have a wealth of childhood memories, which are perennially refreshed by the sight of the old houses, schools, and churches we grew up with. We can remember how the ‘50s looked easily enough. It’s far more difficult to remember how they felt.

To do that, to recapture the sense of living in the “jet age,” we must recall life before a flood of new technologies. We must recall how we lived when television was limited to three channels on a small, grainy, black-and-white screen. But we should also recollect how it felt to live before air conditioning, when we longed to get outside to catch any tiny breeze, when we slept on fire escapes, or hammocks, or down at the beach — anywhere but in the oven that was our bedroom.

The Post was there at the start, as air conditioning grew from a luxury to a necessity for every American house, store, and office building. In “They’re Trying To Make Summer Extinct” [June 6, 1953, PDF download], Rufus Harman predicts the coming summer will mark the beginning of The Great Era of Air Conditioning, which could mean

anything from room coolers becoming as common in homes as refrigerators are now, to a fantastic future when practically all indoor spaces and limited parts of the great outdoors, including streets of cities, will be given year-round “perfect climate” by artificial means.

Financiers of the day predicted air conditioning was about to become “America’s next great industry.”

When the Carrier Corporation, largest in the field, announced last fall, gross business totaling $107,700,702 for twelve months, not only was Wall Street impressed but old-timers in the industry could scarcely believe it. Four years before, when President Cloud Wampler, of Carrier, had predicted a $100,000,000 gross by 1955, some company officials said such wild talk might cause him to lose the employees’ confidence.

Up to now, less than 1 per cent of United States homes have air conditioning in any form. No large New York hotel is fully air conditioned; few apartment buildings are, and only lately have office-building owners decided they must have it to keep tenants.

Two years earlier, Americans had purchased 237,000 single-room air conditioners. In 1951, sales reached 400,000 coolers, and would have sold more if the supply hadn’t run out. The success of these window-mounted, single-room coolers led the industry to think on a larger scale.

Some thinkers believe the important field in residential air conditioning is not room coolers, but central units providing year-long perfect climate for the whole house. A St. Louis builder has scheduled this year 400 such houses to sell at $12,000.

A recent poll, by the National Association of Home Builders, of 255 representative firms indicated that about 40 per cent of home-building companies will offer air conditioning in new houses this year. Last year almost none of the 104 companies in the poll that said they now plan to air-condition new homes were considering the matter seriously.

Many home-owners were early adopters of the new cooling technology, and paid to have central air conditioning installed. But most Americans were reluctant to go beyond one window-mounted, single-room cooler.

The industry expects that more than a quarter millions new car buyers will go for cooling this year [1956]. One hundred and eighty-four thousand did in 1955. By contrast, only 65,000 new homes equipped with central air conditioning were sold last year. An equal numbers of installations were made in old houses. This relatively meager acceptance of complete cooling homes puzzles a great many people. The builders, who turned out 1,330,000 houses last year, are particularly concerned.

“The air-condition equipment in an automobile,” they point out, “has more than enough capacity to cool a small house. The car needs this excess capacity because it soaks up heat through metal and glass. What we’d like to unravel, they say, is why the public will buy air-conditioned cars, patronize air-cooled theaters, restaurants and motels, invest in room air conditioners every time there’s a heat wave, but stay away in droves when a builder tries to sell a house with summer cooling to match winter warmth.” [“They Lock Hot Weather Out,” Arnold Nicolson, June 16, 1956]

One reason they hesitated  was the cost. As long as whole-house air conditioning was viewed as a luxury, it would remain beyond the budget of most households. But in time, Americans began to regard the idea of being comfortable in summer as a justifiable necessity. By 1957, over half a million homes in America had central air conditioning.

Secretary of Commerce Frederick H. Mueller has said: “It’s hard to explain the wide acceptance of air conditioning on its money values alone, I think people have just decided that it’s part of the American standard of living, something we’re all entitled to, just as we’re entitled to heat in the winter and food on the table.”

Business owners realized that air conditioning might make their offices and factories more profitable. According to a 1960 article, researchers had been studying the effect of air conditioning on worker productivity.

In every case, output goes up—from 22 to 28 per cent for factory labor, and from 20 to 50 per cent for office help… An across-the-board rise of 10 per cent in productivity would be something of an industrial revolution, so it’s obvious that air conditioning is going to produce some amazing changes in our efficiency and work habits.

Sociologists are just beginning to appraise the effects that air conditioning may have on our civilization, but the omens are highly visible. Ten years from now [i.e., 1970], when all major office buildings and department stores, half of all factories, and around 30,000,000 dwelling units have “controlled summer environment” as the air-conditioning salesmen new call it, the American way of life may be quite different from what it is today.

Some rather remarkable modifications will be wrought in our home life, too, according to Professor Watt. He studied a community of twenty-two air-conditioned homes near Austin, Texas, comparing them with a similar but non-air-conditioned neighborhood of about the same size. In the air-conditioned homes the wives spent less time at housework because, with doors and windows closed, less dust and dirt got into the house. Colds decreased among the air-conditioned families. Family life — the total hours the family spent together at home — increased. And so, in a way, did family productivity. The rate of pregnancy in the air-conditioned homes showed a significant increase above that in the non air-conditioned. The professor can’t say whether this particular result was due to better health, more relaxed home atmosphere or what. “But it happened,” he declared.

There would be other effects, which would only become apparent over time. Some would be subtle, like the disappearance of distinctive smells inside stores. With their air continually filtered and re-filtered, grocery stores became as scentless as department stores. The unique aroma of the old-fashioned drug store — a rich bouquet of oils and ointments, lunch counter, soaps, and candy — was replaced with odorless, sanitized, empty air.

The Post observed another change: Air conditioning was eroding the sense of community. With Americans remaining close to their air vents, the streets of their neighborhood emptied. The only sound in the summer night was the hum of air conditioning compressors, crickets, and passing cars. Few people strolled the sidewalks at night to cool off before bed, and the front porch was disappearing from the American home.

A technician installing a new air conditioner for a small family.
Jack Toon shows Mrs. Jim Faulkner, of North Hollywood, how to adjust her new air conditioner.

This homely American institution—often more elegantly called “veranda” or “piazza”—belonged to a more expansive generation and had qualities that today’s “patios,” “breezeways,” “terraces” or back-yard “fireplace areas” can’t approach. For one thing, it was “out front” instead of “out back,” far enough removed from the social current that flowed along the sidewalk for privacy, but available for informal neighborhood sociability… There was a largeness and easiness around the old front porch. Times and tastes — and costs, of course — are bound to change, but older generations have a right to keep a warm spot in their hearts for this old-time summer haven. [“What Has Happened To The Front Porch?” Oct. 22, 1955]

Yes, television certainly changed our lives. But when your power fails on a hot summer night, what technology do you miss the most? It’s probably not your television.

Read “They’re Trying To Make Summer Extinct” [June 6, 1953, PDF download].

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  1. Lordy, how spoiled we have become! Trying to sleep on the fire escape or porch to get a little air is a long-distant memory. The thought of having to make the afternoon commute without a/c is almost unbearable these days. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. The movie, Dr. Zhivago,
    Was filled with cold and wintry scenes.
    In hot summer, I saw the show
    In a theatre with the means
    To set the air conditioning
    On high, so that we watchers would
    Feel the film as we sat freezing.
    The movie ’twas long, but ’twas good.
    The ice encrusted palace shown,
    It was as though I was right there,
    Gazing through all the breath puffs blown
    By us into the frigid air,

    Dr. Zhivago was the rage
    In the theatre’s own ice age.


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