Navigate / search

Hardy Jackson’s Alabama: Life before air conditioning

Who remembers life before A/C?

Illustration by Dennis Auth

The other day was the anniversary of the birth or death or something-or-other of Willis Carrier.

And who, pray tell, was Willis Carrier?

Why the inventor of air conditioning, that’s who.

Down here in Dixie we should celebrate. Our states should declare a holiday. We should have a big cookout – and eat inside.

Why inside?

Because we have air conditioning.

Think about it.

Without Willis Carrier and his invention, our cities would be villages, our villages would be hovels, our people would be lazy, lethargic, languid much of the year. Factories would be sweat-shops (literally) and the rate of heat-induced assaults and murders would skyrocket.

We owe a lot to Willis Carrier.

For my part, I thank Willis Carrier for a good night’s sleep.

Those of us of a certain age can recall summers down south.

As children, we spent days in the sun and shade, barefoot and (for the boys) shirtless, getting that brownish-red pre-cancerous glow that sends us to the dermatologist today. There were creeks and ponds for swimming, hoses for water fights, and all those things we look back on with rose-tinted tenacity, convincing ourselves that the good old days were really good.

In this nostalgia, we often forget that when night fell, we were inside where the air was hot and heavy, where hardly a breeze stirred, where even a fan (if you had one) brought little relief.

Nights so hot that at bedtime you would take ice cubes, wrap them in a wash rag, and hold them to your cheek or chest in the mistaken belief that if you could get one part of your body cold the rest of you would cool down enough to let you sleep.

What you got instead was a wet pillow or wet sheets.

My first air conditioning experience was at the movies, which became our summer retreat from the heat. Then stores took it up. Then churches. Some congregations had to overcome the belief that heat was part of God’s Plan and should be endured, not overcome. Sitting hot through a sermon was a test of faith.

But in time, congregations apparently concluded that air conditioning was also part of that same Plan and went along with it.

Houses were the last to join the movement, but when they did, the window unit became a status symbol not unlike the TV antenna. If you had both, you had arrived.

The change air conditioning wrought was most evident in Southern cities, where instead of windows to raise and draw in a breeze, new buildings included immovable glass that reflected light and heat away from what went on in the cool inside. It is hard to imagine what Birmingham would look like today, much less Mobile, if there was no air conditioning.

But air conditioning has altered more than architecture. It has changed the rhythm of what has been called the “Southern way of life.” Folks stay sealed in their climate controlled cocoons, rather than sit on the porch or in the back yard in sweaty splendor talking with neighbors and family.

It has been suggested that air conditioning has helped bring about the Americanization of Dixie. Surely it has.

Yet one wonders if air conditioning has made modern Southerners more like other Americans, or made them less like Southerners who came before?

On the other hand, we sleep better on hot summer nights.

There is that.