Beating the Heat


Once upon a time when heat waves struck, newspapers would feature pictures of eggs being fried on the hoods of cars or show photos of dogs lying about listless, practically lifeless.  Before air conditioning spread across America (starting in the 1950s) it was no easy task beating the heat.  Actually there was little chance you could; it was more a matter of patient suffering.

It was not easy for men going to work in jackets, long pants and hats.  Lightweight fabrics were not widely available while neckties and long-sleeved shirts simply added to the general discomfort (though straw hats, which allowed air to circulate slightly, improved the situation.)  When these men trudged home at night they appeared truly bedraggled, their jackets off, shirts unbuttoned at the neck, ties loosened.

Men working outdoors often would strip down to their undershirts and tie a handkerchief (usually wet) around their necks.  Those women not working (a majority) often used the heat as an opportunity to dress lightly and certainly more casually.  Wearing their hair up and off their necks, they were likely to appear in short sleeved blouses – and even in shorts.

Kids had many more options.  Out on the street they might encounter the “ices” man who would shave a block of ice and then add a flavored liquid to the flakes.  Or they would spot an ice cream truck parked down the street where the “Good Humor” man dispensed “pops” and frozen treats of all varieties.  Sometimes they’d catch sight of an iceman delivering blocks of ice to customers on the block.  Consuming ice chips scattered about on the floor of his truck was singularly refreshing.

A nearby park would likely have a water fountain where kids could squirt water on their faces and gulp down the refreshing liquid.  The more intense the heat the more likely suburban youngsters would turn on lawn sprinklers and cavort under the continuous downpour.  In the city someone would get the idea of opening a fire hydrant along the curb.  Out would come an immense gusher of water capable of knocking you off your feet.  The fun could end quickly, however, if a policeman passed by.  He’d quickly turn off the hydrant and warn everyone that it had to stay shut.  But back in the park the attendant there might, at this point, have turned on an elevated sprinkler under which kids could run about and cool off.

Then there were the movies.  It didn’t matter much what was “showing”.  The attraction was that the theaters were “comfortably air cooled.”  That’s all you needed to know:  indoor relief lasting for hours.  (Double features were common.)  Of course, once you left and were back outside, the heat felt even more oppressive.

Homes and apartments were a severe challenge in the heat.  You would open the windows wide (hopefully there were screens to keep out flies and bugs) and turn on an electric fan if you had one.  Otherwise, hand-held fans brought at least temporary relief.  Families usually kept ice water in the refrigerator at such times and also served “light” meals, including cheeses, cold macaroni, salads and fruit, especially cherries, strawberries, peaches, and particularly watermelon.

Sleeping was a problem.  What many people did was stay up late and spend time outside, sitting on a chair or stoop or in their backyards.  Some chose to put sheets and pillows out on their fire escapes; others went to “bed” on the roofs of their buildings.

If you slept indoors, hopefully there was cross ventilation in your room.  Or, if possible, you would move your mattress close to the window or to a door opening out to the backyard.  Still you perspired – which wasn’t all that bad since it did cool you off.

Still, what a joy it was to hear the next morning that the heat wave was about to break, that relief was on the way.

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