D.C. Before A/C: Sweating Out the 'Hot Term'

In another era, thousands of Washington area families slept in local parks when homes became ovens. In August 1947, the Sowers family of Arlington found relief at Hains Point.
In another era, thousands of Washington area families slept in local parks when homes became ovens. In August 1947, the Sowers family of Arlington found relief at Hains Point. (File Photo By Henry Rohland -- The Washington Post)
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By John Lockwood
Washington
Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Sizzle, Swelter, Scorch, Suffer."

-- Front page,

The Washington Post,

Aug. 7, 1906

As a part-time writer, I spend a lot of time at the Library of Congress, going through old magazines and newspapers, including The Post. I have become pretty familiar with Posts of the past. Sometimes The Post has been cheeky and perky, sometimes imposing and solemn.

But whatever the style, there has been one constant: the annual coverage of Washington's ghastly summers, and the inability of Washingtonians to do anything about them until some blessed soul finally invented air conditioning.

Of course, the rich could flee town for Martha's Vineyard, or the Hamptons, or even points overseas. But what about the lesser 99 percent? They had no choice but to endure, if they could.

Some couldn't. The old Post's summertime pages are full of casualty counts of people collapsing and being sent off to a (hot) hospital, as though from a natural disaster or a war. "Prostration" was the usual word. Summer itself was sometimes called the "hot term."

Ice companies did big business (for cold drinks and the iceboxes that homes had before electric refrigerators), and the ice cream parlors were jammed. Some sufferers retreated into the Capitol, or even the stairway of the Washington Monument, to spend the day alongside all that cool marble, armed with a book or a picnic basket. At night, thousands slept in the local parks, since city homes were like ovens. The alleyway slums were the worst of all.

Sometimes federal workers would be let out early on especially bad days, the way they are today when the weather bureau says an inch of snow is on the way.

The Post of Aug. 7, 1906, described a day at the Agriculture Department, where workers tied handkerchiefs about their wrists to keep rivulets of sweat from dripping onto the maps they were making. Bear in mind that men and women then wore layers of heavy dark clothing at work even in the summer, with long sleeves and high collars. Our ancestors roasted.

In its July 4 and July 28, 1901, issues, The Post reported the remarks of inventor Alexander Graham Bell on the subject of cooling off. Bell predicted a future when people could control household temperature in summer and winter alike. For summer, he suggested that a system of metal coils containing a liquefied gas was probably the best way to go.

Bell also commented in the July 4 Post about the confining Victorian-style clothes of his day: "It would be better still to have no clothing at all, but this our civilization would not permit."

The Post still writes about D.C.'s summers, but the stories no longer betray such an air of helplessness, what with widespread air conditioning and some rather obvious changes in fashions -- if not quite as large a change as Bell proposed.


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