I collect old photos of Phoenix, and post them on the web, and one of the most common questions I get is "how did people deal with the summer heat in Phoenix before air conditioning?". The answer surprises most people, because it's simply that most didn't. Most people got out of Phoenix in the summer, it became a virtual ghost town in Territorial days from May to September. Anyone who could got away, either to the mountains, or if they could afford it, to California. Let's go to old-time Phoenix in the summer...
So the fancy ladies with the nice frilly dresses and the dapper dudes with the bowties would have never, ever, seen a Phoenix summer. But there were people who did stay there all summer. They stayed because they had no choice, either they were too poor, or they had to stay to keep an eye on things. And it was miserable.
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In case you're wondering if Phoenix is hotter now in the 21st Century than it was in 1899, it is. The heat island effect has increased the average temperature by as much as ten degrees. In 1899, 120 degree temperatures were unknown. But 110 was common, as was 100, and without air conditioning, even 90 can be terrible.
|Cartoon woman wearing a shift in 1909 Phoenix. The kid is wearing one, too!|
So, put aside any thoughts that well-dressed people were walking around 1899 Phoenix, they weren't. The people who stayed in Phoenix all summer were just doing the best they could, they weren't concerned with fashion. The women didn't wear the long frilly dresses that you see in photos in newspapers, they wore simple simple shifts, long enough for modesty, but worn as loosely as possible. And the men wore the same type of clothing that you see men wear who are out working in the summer heat of Phoenix today, blue jeans, long sleeved shirts, and wide-brimmed hats. Children generally went barefoot, which they did up until through the 1950s. And the kids could jump into the canals, which they did quite often, and they had no use for bathing suits (if you understand what I mean).
Speaking for myself, I find it hard to imagine. My life in Phoenix has always been with air conditioning. I worked in air conditioned offices, I drove an air conditioned car. I've talked with people who have to be out in the heat, and of course it's possible. Phoenix wouldn't function if there weren't people who could be out in the terrible heat, fixing cable lines, or making road repairs. When I drive past these guys, in my air conditioned car, I wonder how they can do it. I've been told that it's just a question of getting used to the heat. I have never been that tough!
So there you go, tough people lived through the summers of Phoenix from the time the city first began, in the 1870s, until air conditioning became common, in the 1950s. Some people still live with the awful heat. I wish I could show you more photos of these people, but then, as now, they really don't get their pictures taken, and published in newspapers. But they keep Phoenix running, and without these tough desert rats, Phoenix wouldn't exist.
Image at the top of this post: An ingenious "Phoenix Summer Bedroom" in 1899.