In my home town of Louisville, summers are hot — that kind of sticky, humid, river-valley heat that leaves you feeling beat up and worn down. Washingtonians know it well. My parents battled the summer swelter by running our central air at full tilt. Our house was so cold on summer nights that I slept in a flannel nightgown with a down comforter pulled up to my chin.
My best friend, on the other hand, grew up in a grand home built at the beginning of the 20th century with more rooms than you could count, beautiful gardens, barns and outbuildings — but no air conditioning, not even a window unit. It was during summer sleepovers at her house that I learned to keep cool by taking an icy shower before bed and by nestling a damp washcloth filled with ice cubes at the base of my neck, just below my pillow.
Her family practiced the old-fashioned ways of genteel summer living: They ate cold soups, salads and omelet dinners (made on the stove-top so one didn’t have to turn on the oven) on their screened-in back porch (cooler than the kitchen or dining room); they dressed in crisp, white linen and cool cottons; and their many awning-shaded windows remained closed during the day but were thrown wide open at sundown to let the cooler night air in. (During the day, the awnings reduced the solar heat, thereby keeping the rooms cooler.)
Other changes were made in my friend’s home come summer. The many fine Oriental and Aubusson rugs were pulled up and replaced with sisal and seagrass for the season, a tradition that was in keeping with practices of centuries before. Valerie Balint, interim director of collections and research at Olana, painter Frederic Church’s historic home in Hudson, N.Y., explains that removing the heavy rugs was “a good way to get spring cleaning underway.” Typically, the rugs would be full of smoke and dirt, so not only did removing them for the summer give them a chance to air out, but it also lightened the look of the rooms. Plus, Balint adds, there is an advantage to many seagrass and sisal-type rugs: They smell good.
Similarly, all of the upholstery in my friend’s house took on a new summer look. Velvet sofas and silk chairs were covered in tight, light-colored linen or cotton slipcovers, which protected the fabrics from perspiration.
Every room had at least two fans, preferably across the room from each other. (This works best if you have windows on opposite walls.) They would set one fan in a window on the windy side of the house to blow air in, and place another in an opposite window to blow air out.
On particularly hot nights, my friend would fill a bowl with ice and place it in front of the fan blowing air into the room. The air would whip across the bowl, giving an icier chill to the room. As clever as this seemed to me at the time, my friend did not invent the trick. According to the White House Historical Association, Navy engineers in the summer of 1881 forced air through a box fitted with ice-water-soaked cotton screens to cool the scorching bedroom of then-ailing president James Garfield.
My friend also had a ceiling fan in her bedroom, which I later learned needed to rotate in the correct direction to cool the room. Most fans have a switch on their motor or base that changes the directional rotation from clockwise to counterclockwise. One direction (typically counterclockwise) pushes the air down, creating a nice breeze for the summer months, while the other direction (clockwise) sucks air up and evenly distributes it in the winter. Just stand under a running ceiling fan, and you can tell which way it’s blowing.
Now that I live in an un-air-conditioned apartment of my own (I still miss the central air of my childhood!), I practice the cooling tricks and summer swaps I learned from my friend, and I think she would be pleased to know that I have added to her list:
I have replaced all of my incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs. Not only do the LEDs lower my electric bill, but they also have no heat output. I do laundry and run my dishwasher only at night, when it’s cooler. And lastly, I sleep on a pillow from Casper that supports my neck and keeps me cool with a dual-layer design. Of course, with the fans, the pillow, the bowl of ice and the cold shower, it can be hard to tell what’s really keeping me cool at night, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll take all the help I can get to sleep in the heat.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”
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