Folks out on the Left Coast are sweltering this summer, with record high temps being set all the way up into Canada where triple-digit is—until recently at least—unheard of. And the problems is, of course, that most folks out and up that way have never bothered with installing air conditioning, because they’ve never really needed it.
Here in the Midwest, though, hot, humid summers with sultry nights are the rule rather than the exception, something that literally makes the tall corn grow around these parts.
Going way, way back into Kendall County’s prehistory, keeping cool was easy—the last Ice Age cooled everything off for several thousand years, burying History Central where I’m writing this under around 2,000 feet of ice. The main problem faced by what few area residents there were back then, in fact (besides fending off the passing saber-toothed tiger or the occasional dire wolf), was keeping warm, even in summer.
But the climate did warm up during thousands of years and those skillful Native American hunters dealt with the dire wolves and saber-tooth cats, gradually added more gathering to their lifestyles, and eventually created tribal societies.
Later Kendall Countians, like the Pottawatomi Indians, kept cool in summer by removing clothing to maintain their comfort levels. Many American Indians wore nothing but their moccasins in summer, thoroughly offending the first Europeans who arrived who, because of existing morals and fashions, were wrapped, chin to toe, in woolens and linens year around.
Permanent settlement by White Americans didn’t start here in northern Illinois until the late 1820s. And as soon as those settlers arrived out here on the Illinois prairies, they encountered a challenging climate. Bitterly cold winter winds swept across the tallgrass prairies, sometimes dropping snow measured in feet, followed by oppressively hot, humid summer weather.
That meant housing that was just fine down South or in New England didn’t work very well here. New England houses were built to conserve heat during that region’s long winters, while Southern architecture was mostly aimed at trying to keep interiors livable during hot weather. Neither style was particularly good at doing both.
So gradually, designs began to include features that helped deal with both cold and hot weather, along with such refinements as window and door screens that would permit windows to be open during the summer months to encourage ventilation while keeping out insects and other pests. Tall ceilings allowed summer heat to rise away from those sitting at tables and on chairs, while double-hung windows featured movable upper sashes that could be opened to vent the hot air that collected up near the ceiling level.
The wide roof overhangs popular with long-ago architects were not stylistic affectations, either. They were both functional as well as decorative, keeping hot sun off the sides and gables of the houses, reducing solar gain in the summer.
The sun’s heat was also reduced in those homes by the sizeable porches favored by Victorians. Those porches also provided additional living area for the family in summer. The house my father grew up in just south of Emporia, Kansas, had a porch that wrapped completely around the structure, assuring that every room on the first floor was shaded from the sun’s rays.
When it got really hot, however, people in the 1800s did what we do today to cool off. Noted the Oswego correspondent of the Kendall County Record in the paper’s July 9, 1874 edition: “If those boys swimming under the bridge on Tuesday afternoon have no common decency, their parents should incorporate a little to them by the means of a switch. They took special pains when a lady and young girl were crossing the bridge to swim out and by various contortions indecently expose themselves.”
Back then, folks used all kinds of heat-beating measures. In church, the rhythmic movement of dozens of cardboard fans (usually advertising the local funeral home) in the congregants’ hands put many a youngster sound asleep on hot Sunday mornings.
Band concerts in the evening and picnics in the county’s cool groves and along the river got families out of their hot houses at other times. And there were those occasional dips in the river—with or without swimming costume.
And then as now, a frosty dish of cold ice cream could hold off the heat for awhile. Noted editor John R. Marshall in the July 22, 1875 Record: “Holland makes splendid chocolate ice cream, and if you want a real nice dish to cool you off, just drop into his [Yorkville] restaurant.”
Mechanical cooling of private homes was, however, not much more than a dream during the 19th and well into the 20th Century.
On the other hand, starting midway through the 19th Century, keeping food cool through the use of home iceboxes grew in popularity, using ice harvested during the winter months on virtually every river and most lakes in the upper Midwest. Large ice harvesting operations were located at almost every Fox River dam and on many area creeks as well, with thousands of tons warehoused each winter. The ice was then used to cool food in homes and businesses, as well as for the meatpacking industry, which used thousands of tons of ice in the shipment of dressed pork and beef carcasses from Midwest meat packing plants to eastern markets.
Mechanical ice manufacturing plants began replacing ice harvesting operations early in the 20th Century. By then, refrigeration technology was advancing and sufficient electrical power was available to operate ice-making machinery. The ice harvesting industry put up a fight, disdainfully labeling the mechanically-produced product ‘artificial ice.’ But the increasing pollution of the Midwest’s streams and lakes made using ‘natural’ ice a chancy thing; it was much easier to assure uniform quality in ice plants. By 1910, several of Chicago’s 71 ice dealers were advertising manufactured ice.
Polluted water sources and warm winters combined to make Fox Valley ice harvesting chancy through the first two decades of the 20th Century. And then on April 20, 1921, the Kendall County Record reported a first for the area: “S.J. Wittrup has installed a new iceless refrigerator in his [Yorkville] restaurant and will be independent of the ice shortage this summer.”
Just a year later, in March 1922, the Record’s Hugh Marshall predicted, “Now that iceless refrigeration has been simplified to the point where it is suitable for the home, it is safe to predict that it will not be long before it will be within the reach of even those of very modest pocketbooks, and all need of bothering with the iceman, with his pick and tongs, will be gone.”
Restaurants weren’t the only businesses benefiting from new refrigeration technology. On May 3, 1922, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Charles Schultz has recently installed a modern refrigerating plant in his [grocery] store.”
Legitimate businesses were quickly joined by the burgeoning field of bootlegging, which quickly adopted modern refrigeration. When lawmen raided John Schickler’s illegal distilling operation along modern Ill. Route 31 near Oswego, the Record reported on March 28, 1923: “The still was of 23-gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloonkeeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol.”
Apparently seeing the error of his ways, Schickler got out of the bootlegging business and instead he and his son went into the dairy business, bottling milk in the same basement of his home where he’d previously been bottling bootleg whiskey.
Once refrigeration technology was understood, it wasn’t all that big a leap from making ice to producing cool air to make buildings more comfortable.
Some of those first air conditioning systems were installed in movie theaters and barbershops. The early systems were simple heat exchangers that were hooked up to a town’s municipal water supply. Water flowed through the heat exchanger’s fins and coils as an electric fan circulated the cooled air through the occupied portions of buildings. The systems were efficient and relatively inexpensive to operate—provided there was access to plenty of cheap municipal water.
While such systems really weren’t practical for home use, technology was marching on. The Record reported on July 20, 1932: “Not long ago, we read an article about the excellent work that is being done with systems for cooling and washing air prior to its use in buildings. The work is now at the stage where systems are being contemplated for use in private homes. Theatres and large public buildings already are using cooling systems. Anyhow, we read the article and didn’t think much about it at the time. But during the scorching nights last week when we couldn’t sleep on account of the heat, we lay in bed and wished with all our might that we had such a cooling apparatus in our house.”
Here in Oswego, barber Roy Roalson installed a heat-exchanger air conditioning system in his shop on South Main Street in 1936. Manufactured by Frigidaire, the blocky unit cooled the barbershop for the next 55 years with little or no maintenance required.
By the 1950s, home window air conditioners were appearing. I remember seeing my first at a neighbor’s farmhouse (they also had the first TV in the neighborhood) and marveling at how much better my asthmatic lungs worked there.
These days, air conditioning is almost considered a must for modern survival during Illinois’ hot humid summers, especially during these days when the tall corn is growing and summer’s Dog Days are on the horizon. And it’s starting to look like our neighbors along the Pacific Coast may be looking at dealing with the same kinds of muggy, uncomfortable summers—at least some of the time—that we here in the Midwest have grown up with.