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

Dealing with the terrible summer heat in Phoenix before the 1920s

It's the beginning of June here in the Phoenix area, and it will be HOT for the next few months. Not rather warm, not kinda hot, but the kind of heat that make you think you can fry and egg on the sidewalk, the kind of heat that makes you feel as if you were stepping into an oven when you leave an air conditioned building. And it's the time of the year when I smile and say, "I've lived through many Phoenix summers, I'm tough!" But of course I'm not. I have an awesome air conditioner blowing on me right now in my home office, I have a killer A/C in my car, thanks to the wonderful people at General Motors. And since I'm interested in Phoenix history, I often wonder how people dealt with the terrible heat "back in the day". That is, back before any type of air cooling was around. That is, before the 1920s.

If you lived in Phoenix before the 1920s, you'd probably scoff at the young "whipper-snappers" who lived with the luxury of cooled air. Speaking for myself, I've always had air conditioning, and something that was called "swamp cooling", which was a system of air blown across a fibrous mat that was kept continuously moist with water. And if you've never experienced a swamp cooler, what you've heard about them is true, they were awful compared to real Air Conditioning (refrigeration). But compared to nothing, it's absolute heaven. I once helped a friend of mine in Tempe get an old swamp cooler working (he was mechanical and I loved climbing on roofs and getting dirty). I can still remember that magic moment when we stood inside of his house and felt the cool air blowing. Up to that point, of course, he'd been living without it, but he had recently been married, and he fixed the swamp cooler as a labor of love for his wife when he moved her in. It may have saved his marriage, I don't know.

Before the 1920s, the best that people could do (if they couldn't get away in summer, and most did) was sleep outside with wet blankets hanging along the porch. If you don't know how hot and dry it is, even in the middle of the night, in Phoenix, it's hard to imagine. Yes, there was electricity, and many people could afford fans, but there was nothing like a post-1920s air cooler.

The Phoenix Theater in 1936, Washington and 3rd Avenue. Not just air cooled, but healthfully cooled by refrigeration.

Like all new technologies, air cooling started out being very expensive, and rare. The earliest systems were what we would call "swamp cooling", that is, just air being blown across some type of matting that was kept continuously moist. As the technology advanced, especially after WWII, true refrigeration (which is what most of us know and love) came to be expected, and businesses that said "Air Cooled" were seen as inferior to business that said "Cooled by Refrigeration".

Image at the top of this post: The Air Cooled San Carlos Hotel in the 1930s. It must have felt like heaven, even though it wasn't modern refrigeration.

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