Take a nap

James Meek

  • Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air-Conditioning by M. Ackerman
    Smithsonian, 248 pp, £21.50, July 2002, ISBN 1 58834 040 6

In June 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Washington. Although the White House had had air-conditioning installed in its offices ten years earlier, family and guest rooms weren’t artificially cooled. Despite this, the King and Queen requested hot-water bottles, heavy-duty bedding and glasses of hot milk before bedtime. Perhaps this was the ostentatious stoicism of the aristocracy. Perhaps they were just bonkers. In Washington in June 1939, the temperature hung in the nineties Fahrenheit, with humidity to match. The Foreign Office rated it as a tropical posting and, until the advent of air-conditioning, the political class had evacuated the former swamp between June and September.

In her readable, if modular, account of how air-conditioning in the United States evolved from a novelty to a luxury, to a necessity, to a right, Marsha Ackermann devotes a chapter to cooling creep in Washington. She doesn’t say so, but there’s a sketch here of an alternative, temperature-based 20th-century history of America in the vignettes of Presidents. Like his royal guests in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt affected a patrician disdain for air-conditioning (besides, it didn’t agree with his sinuses). A speech-writer who at times had to flee the suffocating heat of the President’s study said Roosevelt seemed to enjoy sweating and wiping his wet brow.

Nixon loved air-conditioning. In summer he would turn the thermostat down as low as it would go, so he could toast himself by a blazing log fire in the synthetic chill. Extreme as Nixon’s virtuoso double-polluting habits may seem now, he was more in tune with the American public mood on matters of temperature control than the only President who tried to rein in his nation’s growing addiction to air-conditioning, Jimmy Carter.

In 1979, in the wake of the leap in oil prices, Carter gave 55 million white-collar workers what Ackermann calls ‘a sweaty sense of grievance’ by pushing through a law banning all businesses and government offices from setting the thermostats on their air-conditioning any lower than 80 °F (26.7 °C). Offenders were to be fined up to $10,000 a day, and there was a hotline to denounce the illegally cool. Like Gorbachev’s attempt to ban alcohol in the Soviet Union, Carter’s move was well-intentioned, generally ignored – including by some Federal judges in Texas and New Mexico – and politically disastrous. Carter’s description of the US as ‘the most wasteful nation on earth’ may have been true, but it was as popular with the voters as Gorby telling Russians that, at weddings, they should toast the bride with fruit kompot. Ackermann doesn’t suggest that the policy lost Carter the election to Ronald Reagan, but being associated with smelly armpits in underventilated offices on sweltering Monday afternoons can’t have helped.

Congress voted to air-condition the Capitol in 1928, on the grounds that the unconditioned air of the House of Representatives and the Senate was unhealthy. Too many Congressmen were dying in office. There were rebels, like Senator Royal Copeland, a doctor, who called – a radical step – for putting windows into the Senate chamber instead, allowing natural daylight and fresh air into debates. He was overruled.

In the 1920s and 1930s air-conditioning was still a novelty, associated with cheap entertainment for the masses. Most people’s first experience of air-conditioning in the US was in cinemas, which used it as a way of drawing crowds in the heat of summer. In 1925 the Rivoli movie theatre in New York installed the first of a new type of advanced air-conditioning and advertised itself as ‘really cool’, claiming to offer patrons ‘refrigerated mountain ozone’. The $100,000 system, a tycoon’s ransom at the time, paid for itself in three months. The cruddy Hollywood fare that now squats in the multiplexes every summer is not, it turns out, a traditional strategy for luring the masses to sit in darkened, popcorn-stinking fleapits instead of going to the beach, but a side-effect of air-conditioning.

It was concern that Congressional deliberations might be associated with the slapstick and melodrama of the pictures that prevented the Capitol getting air-conditioning earlier. To some, it seemed frivolous and decadent. Others wanted to stop the unpleasant tickle of sweat beads rolling down their torsos. Comfort won over stoicism, as comfort, where available, usually does. The Chicago Tribune may have flayed the Presidency for the insanity of creating an artificially refrigerated US capital in sultry Washington instead of relocating somewhere naturally cool – the shores of Lake Michigan, for instance – but it was useless. In 1942, Washington became the first city in the US where electricity use peaked in high summer.

In the early 20th century, before it dawned on the Wasp elite that electric cooling could be provided to whole populations, influential thinkers developed a racist unease about the dangers of hot climates. A counter-current rejoiced in the extremes of heat and cold Americans had to deal with; there was nobility in overcoming weather more powerful than anything their Old World ancestors had had to face. The two schools could be called ‘The White Man Can Take It’ and ‘The White Man Can’t Take It (And Shouldn’t Try)’. ‘Was the United States a vigorous land whose bracing climate made it a cradle of civilisation and progress?’ Ackermann asks. ‘Or was it, instead, a nation cursed with tropical conditions that foretold political and racial decline?’ The two schools later merged as raw material for the air-conditioning lobby. The ‘White Man Can’t Take It’ point of view had an obvious explanation of the need for air-c0nditioning, while the ‘White Man Can Take It’ standpoint was subtly modified so that air-conditioning technology itself became an expression of America’s struggle with, and triumph over, the savage extremes of nature. The pioneer spirit became something you bought into rather than practised.

Before the Civil War, there were factions of the pro and anti-slavery lobbies who subscribed to theories equally hostile to the combination of heat and black skin. The pros believed Africans had been created by God to perform hard, menial labour in the heat; the antis thought black skin and wiry hair were symptoms of a disease which might be cured by living in cooler climates.

In the 20th century, Ellsworth Huntington, a geographer and supposed expert on the relationship between race, temperature and achievement, argued in his bestselling book Climate and Civilisation (1915) that warmer climates made people unhealthier and their wits duller. The tropics, he said, had a ‘dull, unprogressive population’; they were degenerate. His protégé S. Colum GilFillan went further. Not only was Washington doomed, so were New York and Los Angeles. In 1920, he forecast that by 2000 the centres of world civilisation would be cities like Detroit, Montreal and Moscow.

A British admirer of Huntington’s, Sydney Markham, warned that European immigrants to the southern US were in danger of losing their native ‘vitality’ and ‘energy’ in the same burning heat that had caused those below the Mason-Dixon line to lose the Civil War. He saw air-conditioning as the answer for all races. ‘The greatest contribution to civilisation in this century may well be air-conditioning – and America leads the way,’ he burbled. ‘The negro may yet reach heights of intellectual attainment undreamed of by Booker T. Washington . . . may, by climate control, leap forward again into the van of scientific progress.’

At first, Huntington was off-message when it came to air-conditioning. He disapproved of a constant temperature indoors, regardless of season; to him, variability was as important as avoidance of extremes. His preferred solution was for workers, like geese, to migrate with the changing seasons. Industrial nomadism never took off, and by mid-century, Huntington was beginning to be seen in academic circles as a racist fool. But by this time, he had become a paid-up apostle of air-conditioning, and his ideas had stuck fast in the public imagination. Ackermann has uncovered advertisements from the Saturday Evening Post of 1949 and 1950. One of them shows a Mexican in rumpled white pyjamas and crudely made sandals, a sombrero shading his head, lying prostrate in the dirt of a scruffy market. ‘temperature 102 degrees – production zero’, the caption reads. ‘Why have most great inventions and advances in science and industry come from temperate zones? Because for centuries tropical heat has robbed men of energy and ambition. There was no air-conditioning. So they took siestas, seeking relief from heat and stifling humidity.’

Charles-Edward Winslow, a popular and academically successful public health specialist who was obsessed with the Black Hole of Calcutta, underwent a conversion similar to Huntington’s. His certainty about the dual benefits to human health of low temperatures and ventilation – at home he preferred a temperature of 50 °F (10 °C) in winter – led him to conclude, after deep thought and study, that people should keep their windows open. As should schools, offices and other public buildings.

To the mechanical ventilation lobby, which grew rapidly in clout and ambition in the 1920s, there was no greater menace to civilisation – that is, to the air-conditioning business – than open windows. They were inflamed by an open-windows campaign Winslow ran in 1924 and 1925 against the practice of installing powerful electrical air-blowers in schools, which led to janitors desperately stoking furnaces to keep up with the artificial draughts the fans created. The dispute came to the boil in Buffalo in 1926, at the annual convention of the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers (ASHVE). Winslow repeated his opposition to mechanical ventilation. One delegate compared him to a religious fundamentalist. He had already been called a Bolshevik. ‘The suggestion that we go back to open-window ventilation is out of harmony with all the progress man is making . . . the ventilating engineer resents a suggestion so primitive and so unprogressive,’ a delegate fumed. Yet as air-conditioning came to supplant air-blowers, Winslow came round. By 1931 he’d caved in completely. By 1945 he was the ASHVE’s president. By 1949 his earlier obsession with the movement of fresh air into enclosed spaces was forgotten. Temperature was all, and air-conditioning was king. ‘The powerful and efficient nations of the past century have been those . . . where mean monthly summer temperatures of over 75 degrees are rare,’ Winslow wrote. ‘May not vast areas in the subtropics become the seat of mighty civilisations as summer air-conditioning meets human physiological needs with similar efficiency?’

Climatic heat can kill. The body heat people generate by living and exerting themselves is normally radiated from the skin. When it gets hotter, a further mechanism, sweat, comes into play. If the external temperature reaches a certain level, perspiration becomes the only means of keeping cool. The body can lose litres of water in an hour as sweat is secreted, cooling the organism by evaporation. Victims may become dehydrated and collapse from heat exhaustion. If people go beyond this stage, eventually even the sweat mechanism becomes fatigued, sweating falls off, and body temperature begins to rise rapidly, to between 106 and 110 °F (41 ° to 43 °C). Dizziness, headache, nausea, dry skin and mental confusion follow. The heart begins to beat too rapidly. The victim falls into a coma, their heart rate weakens and they may die.

It is hard to be sure of exact figures, but heatwaves in the US in the past few decades, where temperatures have sometimes hit 100 °F (37.8 °C) daily for more than a fortnight, have killed thousands of people. It is assumed that without air-conditioning the huge new conurbations of the American sun belt (whose growth may itself have been encouraged by the affordability of air-conditioning) would see greater death tolls in heatwaves. The scorching Midwestern summer of 1980 put political pressure on the Carter Administration to recognise air-conditioning for the elderly poor as a life-saving necessity, almost a human right, rather than a lifestyle choice. The Home Energy Assistance Act promised limited subsidies to the worst affected states.

Ackermann launches her work with anecdotes of personal hostility towards air-conditioning, and adopts a censorious tone throughout. Yet she can’t avoid ambivalence as the book draws to an end. The ubiquity of air-conditioning in the US, in homes, cars, offices and public spaces, has contributed to the indoorness of American life, to a life without open windows, as if human beings were becoming astronauts, floating between a series of sealed home, work and leisure capsules. More than 98 per cent of all new cars in the US have air-conditioning. Air-conditioning is water-thirsty and electricity-greedy, commodities the US should be trying to conserve. Yet Ackermann’s own words underline how uncomfortable, and in some cases deadly, extreme climatic heat can be. It is human to seek comfort.

One of the unfortunate omissions in Ackermann’s book is the spread of air-conditioning in the developing world. Because she doesn’t talk about that she makes the US look as if it is alone in seeking artificial ‘coolth’, as Gwyn Prins put it. Yet countries such as India, too, are beginning to suffer strain on their creaking electrical grids in the hottest months because of the popular yearning for air-conditioning.

We Brits do gripe. About the oppressive American heat, about the oppressive cold-within-heat of air-conditioning. Elvis Costello’s song ‘American without Tears’ puts the classic view: ‘Outside in New Orleans/ The heat was almost stifling/But my hotel room as usual/Was freezing and unkind.’ Are we so pure of spirit, so contemptuous of comfort? Think of heating, rather than cooling. Is it any more absurd to think that old people in Kansas City should be helped with their air-conditioning bills in summer than that their counterparts in Salford should be helped with their heating bills in winter? Before sneering too loudly about overconsuming Americans, we should think about our central heating turned up to cope with draughty single-glazed windows, our fan heaters rattling away so that we can indulge ourselves sitting out in conservatories in midwinter, our gas heaters on poles so we can live the lie that Britain can support beer gardens or café tables on the street in February.

Dependence on air-conditioning or central heating is not so decadent as the lack of research into ways of achieving comfortable temperatures without expending tons of fossil fuels. Ackermann doesn’t go into alternative ways of keeping cool, but her mention – without explanation – of traditional evaporative coolers in the houses of El Paso is tantalising. What of the moucharaby, the carved wooden window-balcony of the Arab world, which lets in light and air, but not the full heat of the sun; or the brise-soleils of Le Corbusier; or the arcaded patios of Spain and Latin America? If Americans are imprisoned by climate, it is as much by adherence to a cool-world timetable as by dependence on synthetic cold. It seems odd that someone so personally hostile to air-conditioning, and so disapproving of that 1949 ad showing the Mexican asleep in the heat of the day, couldn’t have come up with a word in defence of the siesta.