This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

How people in old-time Phoenix dealt with the summer heat

I collect photos of old Phoenix, and post them on a Facebook group page, and one of the most common comments I see deals with thoughts of the summer heat. It's usually something like this, "Wow, that photo must have been taken in the winter - they're wearing jackets", or "they have long sleeves!" It's something that I don't notice, because I never had to deal with the heat of Phoenix summers, not really.

I grew up in Minneapolis, and my career in Phoenix has been one of comfort and ease. I always went from an air conditioned house to an air conditioned car to an air conditioned office. I never had to walk to school in the heat, I never had to work outside. My mind boggles about people who do! And of course my first thought is about what people in old-time Phoenix did before air conditioning.

If you're young, that is, born after the 1920s, you probably wouldn't be able to imagine what the heat must have been like in old-time Phoenix. No, I'm not saying that it was hotter "back in the day", but flip-of-a-switch A/C of the type we know about, really has only been in around since the 1950s. Before that, of course, there were fans, and fans that blew over pads that were saturated with water (called Swamp Coolers), but before that the best you could do was to sleep outside and hang wet sheets and hope for some kind of a breeze. Well, not exactly. I've found out what people did in the summer in Phoenix - they left.

Now waitaminute, I'm not saying the town completely emptied out, but for many months the people left behind were pretty lonely. Anyone who could afford it went to the mountains, or to California.

As a man "of age" now, I can relate to how this worked. When I was in my early thirties, I found that I could pretty much have the golf courses to myself in the summer (and the rates were much lower!). I scoffed at the "wimps" who couldn't take it. And then as I got older and wiser I stopped doing that. Nowadays the thought of going out onto a golf course when it's over 100 degrees is unthinkable. So the people who stayed in old-time Phoenix were, for the most part, young men.

Of course, Phoenix had the kinds of things that helped young men get through the summer. There was electricity by the 1890s, which meant fans were available, and of course ice. And there was beer, and whiskey. If you're a history buff you know that alcohol wasn't just "for partying", it was seen as medicinal, and I gotta admit that I'd probably be quaffing a few if I had to live through a summer in Phoenix without air conditioning.

Image at the top of this post: 1909 ad promoting getting away from Phoenix in the summer. Prescott sounds nice!

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