Hurricane Isaac's power trip calls to mind days before air-conditioning
Two weeks ago, as hundreds of thousands of people swore, sweated and suffered after Hurricane Isaac knocked out their electricity, two questions kept coming to mind: When will the power come back? And how did our ancestors survive New Orleans' sultry summers without air-conditioning?
The latter query has answers that involve a combination of features, including lightweight clothing, blocks of ice insulated in sawdust, plenty of cooling baths, primitive means of stirring the air, and architectural features such as transoms, shaded verandas and high ceilings that were designed to keep people as comfortable as possible.
Affluent New Orleanians simply fled the city for second homes in less torrid environments upriver, across Lake Pontchartrain or along the Gulf Coast. For those who stayed behind, schedules were adjusted so that business, shopping and social calls were carried out in the early mornings and late afternoons, when the mercury was slightly lower, with a break around midday for a light lunch and a nap.
After dark, New Orleanians could hop aboard a train nicknamed Smoky Mary to ride to the Lakefront, near the area now occupied by the University of New Orleans, for an outdoor seafood dinner, accompanied by lake-borne breezes. People who didn't -- or couldn't -- spring for a train ride and dinner strolled along the levee in hopes of catching some gentle gusts.
'People perspired a lot'
Despite all these efforts to make life bearable, "it was hot," said Ann Masson, an architectural historian who has conducted extensive research into the way 18th- and 19th-century New Orleanians lived and coped.
In un-air-conditioned times, daily life could be tough. In his 1851 book, "The Manhattaner in New Orleans," A. Oakley Hall wrote that the summertime sun struck the Crescent City "with a power as if the atmosphere was all filled with concave lenses of which New Orleans was the focus."
As a result of the intense, inescapable heat, "people perspired a lot," Masson said. "Everybody perspired, and everybody was kind of damp. They complained, but I think people were accustomed to it."
There was, she said, one aspect of New Orleans life in the pre-air-conditioned age that helped people accept the seasonal heat: They had no experience with the sharp contrast contemporary New Orleanians face when they forsake the comfort of a cool building or car and step into an outdoor environment that seems as infernally hot as a blast furnace.
In other words, regardless of where people went then, it was hot. "The lack of an alternative environment makes people incredibly tolerant," Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella said. "It's a question of relative expectations, I suppose."
Lighting clothing, furnishings
Adjustments to the climate started with lighter clothing: seersucker and white-linen suits for men and hoop skirts for women. In the days before antiperspirants, people who cared about how they smelled used perfume to mask the smell of sweat, and clothes had built-in shields to absorb sweat and keep it from ruining the garments.
"The shields would absorb some of the perspiration, but at 2 o'clock on a July afternoon in New Orleans, what could help you?" Masson said. "When you see antique clothing from the mid-19th century, it is so deteriorated from perspiration that the areas under the sleeves were replaced several times."
Summertime transformations took place throughout the home. Starting in late spring and early summer, heavy curtains came down and were replaced by draperies made of lighter fabrics, such as lace, muslin or a thin cotton fabric known as dimity, Masson said.
Besides being lighter, these less expensive furnishings, which also covered chairs, meant that the showier items weren't exposed to dust or to damage by sun and rain. They also maximized air flow because there was less material to impede cross-ventilation, said Carolyn Bercier, curator of Gallier and Hermann-Grima historic houses in the French Quarter.
Cross-ventilation was key
Cross-ventilation was a key point in house design then, she said. "Houses were designed to have cross-ventilation from front to back, and furniture was placed so you wouldn't block air flow. In the 19th century, you always arranged furniture so you have maximum air flow, whether it looked good or not. If the bed placement looked bizarre, it didn't matter. You wanted the air to move back and forth."
Heavy bedding and thick wool carpets were removed in the warmer months, and straw matting was the floor covering of choice. To protect carpets from insect damage during the summer, Masson said, they were rolled up with items such as tobacco, peppercorns, camphor and bay leaves.
Because windows were opened to let in more air, fancy items such as mirrors, picture frames and chandeliers were draped in muslin to prevent fly specks, Masson said.
At night, people slept under mosquito netting. For most of the 19th century, before scientists showed that the insects transmit malaria and yellow fever, they were regarded merely as annoyances instead of disease vectors. And the insects were pervasive, Masson said, citing an observation by a 19th-century levee stroller who said, "There were so many mosquitoes swarming around the head of one man that it looked like a top hat."
Bathtubs full of ice
Although Dr. John Gorrie of Florida didn't have a cure for yellow fever in 1844, he did patent a machine that circulated chilled air around people with the disease, said Pamela Arceneaux, senior librarian and rare-books curator at The Historic New Orleans Collection's Williams Research Center.
Ice arrived in New Orleans in the early 19th century, and it became immensely popular, Masson said. "At Houmas House, even the bathtubs had ice in them."
The city had an ice-storage facility in 1819, Arceneaux said, but it didn't have a manufacturing plant until 1864, two years after a Union blockade had put a halt to river-borne ice shipments to the city.
By the 19th century, ice cream and sorbets were popular, and hand-cranked ice-cream freezers were available in the 1840s.
In summers, people tried to keep from overheating their homes by cooking as little as possible, generally on Sundays, and living on leftovers for the rest of the week, Masson said. Early iceboxes helped keep the food from spoiling.
Some culinary historians have theorized that one reason for the popularity of spicy seasonings in south Louisiana was that they raised body temperature, thereby increasing natural cooling through perspiration, Arceneaux said.
During antebellum dinners in an affluent home, the heavy air might be stirred by a punkah, a canvas-covered frame suspended from the ceiling that was moved back and forth over the dining-room table by a servant -- or, more likely, a slave -- who stood in a corner and pulled a rope, Ned Hémard wrote in a column for the New Orleans Bar Association's website.
The first ceiling fans
The first wave of electrification occurred in the 1880s, Campanella said, when ceiling fans were installed in shops, restaurants and saloons. Even though they merely moved the hot air around, they drew customers because they were novelties, he said.
A belt-operated system of fans linked by pulleys and belts was on display at the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884 in what is now Audubon Park, Hémard said. After the fair, the system, featuring a lederhosen-clad mannequin named Ludwig turning a crank, was installed at Kolb's Restaurant on St. Charles Avenue.
Starting in the 1920s, Campanella said, theaters started touting systems that cooled summertime moviegoers, generally by using big fans that blew over blocks of ice and spread the cool air into the auditoriums.
After World War II, he said, window air-conditioning units began to appear, and houses were no longer designed with cross-ventilation as a prime asset.
It was, Bercier said, a realization that hit her during the five days her house was without electricity. Without anything to make the air flow through, she said, "you're just sitting in a room with dead air."
It is still common to encounter older people who speak fondly about neighborhood activity in the days before air-conditioning and television drew people indoors, said Campanella, a professor of practice at Tulane's School of Architecture.
But, he said, "I really can't say I've heard people reminisce about the good old days when they were sitting inside an 88-degree house at night."
John Pope can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3317.
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