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.

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