“What’s the latest weather forecast, Sam?”
“I’m not sure, Joe, let’s take a walk down to the weather kiosk and find out.”
From the beginning of the 20th century to the start of the Great Depression, before tablets, smartphones and televisions, Washingtonians could receive weather reports from a dedicated kiosk downtown.
A lot has changed in 100 years, but just as some weather reports can be controversial today, they were hotly contested then, as well.
Beginning in 1908, the U.S. Weather Bureau, predecessor of the National Weather Service, installed weather kiosks in large cities to display weather data and forecasts. The kiosks were four feet square, seven feet high, and had four 30-inch panels for viewing weather information.
The north side of the kiosk held the weather instruments that displayed temperature, relative humidity and rainfall information for the day. The other three sides of the kiosk were bulletin boards that displayed weather forecasts, climatic charts, weather maps and items of local interest. The kiosk did not have a barometer.
Washington’s weather kiosk was located on Pennsylvania Avenue, near E Street NW. It happened to be directly adjacent to The Washington Post building at the time.
Initially, the kiosk was quite popular with the public, and its reports were frequently cited by the media, particularly The Post. But after a couple of decades passed, Washingtonians began to complain that the kiosk was not reporting accurate temperature readings. The kiosk’s temperature was often 10 degrees warmer than the actual temperature, particularly on sunny afternoons.
The kiosk became a Great Depression-era “fake news” controversy in Washington.
That lying kiosk
The kiosk’s thermometer was not to blame for its generous temperature readings; the problem was with the kiosk’s location. It was located on a sun-baked sidewalk next to Pennsylvania Avenue NW, sandwiched between large, concrete buildings, in the middle of Washington’s fast-growing heat island. It was a great location for viewing the temperature but not the best location for measuring the temperature.
Occasionally, the media would report the crazy temperatures. On Aug. 7, 1918, for example, The Post reported the temperature hit 114 degrees the previous day. But the official high at 24th and M streets NW, where official observations were taken was 106, Washington’s highest on record.
On July 28, 1930, The Post ran a headline reading, “Street level mercury hits 109 reading.” The 1930 article then explained the actual high temperature that day was 99 degrees and the temperature discrepancy was because “not a breath of air was felt at the kiosk which bore the full brunt of the sun’s scathing rays.”
That same year, the media began to criticize the kiosk’s weather data. An article published by The Post on July 29, 1930, was headlined, “The untruthful kiosk,” and included the following statements: “The kiosk is a meteorological liar. It should be made to tell the truth or else be banished.”
Another article published in The Post on Sept. 24, 1931, was headlined, “Kiosk called liar and held guilty of false advertising,” and mentioned that the kiosk “was called everything from a liar to an improper instrument” at the National Press Club.
In defense of the kiosk
Not everyone was unhappy with the kiosk and its upwardly skewed temperature readings. A letter to the editor published in The Post on Aug. 6, 1930, was titled “Defense of the Pennsylvania Avenue Kiosk” and included the following passage:
We cannot do without the kiosk. It is an essential. The truth must be had at all costs. When we are roasting we want to know under what degree of heat we are suffering. The figures from the Weather Bureau may be accurate enough so as far as they apply to the airy regions within our ken, but the temperatures from the kiosk include the heat which is generated upward from the pavement and walls of buildings, plus unshaded sunshine. That is the heat the man in the street feels.
Other letters to the editor, however, continued to condemn the kiosk. A letter published Sept. 15, 1931, was titled “Hot and indignant Washingtonian attacks that abominable liar, the kiosk” and mentioned the kiosk was a “fireless cooker” that should not have a thermometer.
The weather kiosk was doomed. The Weather Bureau received too much criticism from the public and media regarding the accuracy of its data to continue its use, so during January 1933, the maligned kiosk was dismantled by the Weather Bureau and hauled away.
Some residents were sad to see it go. A letter to the editor published on Jan. 21, 1933, was titled “Laments dismantling of the time-honored kiosk on Pennsylvania Avenue” and included the following passage:
“I have been wondering why The Post has not printed a farewell editorial to the weather kiosk, which for years has stood as an ornamental landmark just outside your front door, now that it has been put out of commission by official weather experts with a grudge against it. I myself am sorry to see it go.”
I don’t think The Post ever printed a farewell editorial to the weather kiosk back in 1933, so 85 years later, I’ll print my farewell message:
Farewell, dear weather kiosk. I never gazed upon your sun-baked thermometer and never photographed your oversized structure in the snow, but I would have loved to compare your “fireless cooker” temperature readings to those reported at Reagan National Airport. I bet on some days they’d be very close. But, alas, we must now get our inflated temperatures from National and not actually in town, on Pennsylvania Avenue. So rest in peace, weather kiosk. I’ll always keep an overly warm spot in my heart for you.