"The sun is so damn near Washington that it is the next place to hell," complained a Civil War soldier, writing home to his family in Michigan. "Our throats seem as dry as contributions to the Soldiers Aid Society . . . . There is nothing to do but lay around and sweat out old times."

That observation, from a history of Washington published by the Junior League, provides a vivid glimpse of summers past in the nation's capital.

But you don't have to go back to the 1860s to learn what life was like in this town before air conditioning -- and what folks did to keep cool without it.

Air conditioning and even electric fans haven't been around all that long, and there are plenty of people who remember when July and August here used to be worse.

"Some nights my mother used to come in and fan us kids in bed until we fell asleep," recalled 101-year-old Mary Bryan, a lifelong District resident who grew up in Georgetown. "There was no electricity. We just lived on lemonade and ice water."

Bryan, who didn't have air conditioning until she moved to The Washington Home when she was 90, said she hated the summer heat as a youngster and was delighted when, near the turn of the century, her father bought the household its first electric ceiling fan.

"It helped," she said.

So did wearing thin summer dresses, taking street car rides to "get a breeze" from the open window and sitting outside after sunset.

These days, the poorer neighborhoods in the city and suburbs are still full of porch and front step sitters, people who spend their summer evenings outdoors because their homes feel like ovens inside. And there are other area residents who, crazy as it may seem, go without air conditioning by choice.

But at least the folks in these unair-conditioned households -- about 180,000 homes in the Washington area, according to a 1981 Census report -- can duck into museums, movies or other air-cooled buildings for some relief.

In the days before air conditioning, that was never an option.

Bryan remembers that people went swimming or canoeing in the Potomac when the heat became too unbearable. But she was always afraid of the water and looked forward instead to her family's train trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains, "where the nights were cool."

Bryan's nephew owned an ice wagon, she said, and he would make his rounds each morning delivering "great big pieces of solid ice for the ice box."

Ice was big business in the days before refrigerators, according to Robert Vogel, curator of heavy machinery and civil engineering at the Museum of American History.

During most of the 19th century, natural ice was cut in big blocks from frozen ponds and lakes, then stored until summer in thick-walled ice houses. By 1880, ice was man-made and sold daily.

"It was essential for food preservation more than for comfort," said Vogel.

"Imagine if you brought your bags of groceries home and didn't have a refrigerator. It meant you had to shop every day."

With the invention of electric fans, ice was also used for air conditioning -- large blocks of ice would be placed in front of fans to help circulate cool air. Railroads, theaters and movie houses that served large groups of people packed tightly together made great use of this early cooling system until the late 1920s, when electric air conditioners came into use.

The White House and the Capitol were among the first government buildings to get air conditioning, in 1927. Before that, Congress didn't meet during the summer.

"Most of the people back then who knew better just left for the summer," said Larry Baume, curator of collections at the Columbia Historical Society. "A lot of Washingtonians had country homes in Bethesda."

For those who couldn't escape, Baume said, there were ways of adapting, some still in use today.

"A hand-held fan was not only fashionable but was used to cool people off, and people would carry them," said Baume.

Many of the downtown stores had awnings, which were let down to keep direct sun out of the windows and to provide shade along the street. Automatic floor and ceiling fans also helped to cool the shops.

Washingtonians in summer opened up their windows, bought attic and window fans and slept out on their porches or on basement floors. Josephine Wyman, 80, said residents "completely changed their houses," taking up carpets, putting up different curtains, sitting outside all evening. But she thinks it was easier to stay cool back then.

"Washington in those days had more trees and open spaces and was almost entirely made up of houses and small buildings," she said. "Now we're more closed in."

The majority of homes and government buildings here were not air conditioned until well after World War II, and this worked a hardship on federal workers.

Harold Lindstrom, 75, remembers being sent home from his job at the Agriculture Department in the late 1950s because temperatures had reached 100. The agency's building on Independence Avenue SW got air conditioning in 1962, at a cost of $14 million. According to Lindstrom, the building itself was constructed in the 1930s at a cost of only $4 million.

For its pre-air-conditioning era, according to Baume, the government eventually devised a formula: add the temperature and the humidity, then divide by two. If the result was 90 or above, employes were sent home.

"It was like a snow day is now," said Vogel. "You got sent home, with pay, sort of like hardship duty." Otherwise, said Vogel, who has his own memories of working in the Smithsonian's unair-conditioned Arts and Industries building in 1957, "There really was no hope for it, just sit there and drip at your desk."

Summer life, then as now, was easier for the rich. "If you were well off, you went to Maine or Europe," said Lindstrom. "But most people were not well off. We just suffered."