Friday, June 10, 2016

Keeping Cool: Homes Before Air Conditioning

By Gretchen Sawatzki

Air conditioning has been the go-to solution for cooling homes since its invention nearly a century ago. But how did people keep their homes cool before the dawn of this modern invention? Ingenuity and well-planned design.

Victorian home in California circa 1940.
By Unknown employee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Homes before 1920 were designed with many features to beat the heat:

The "Stack Effect"

Victorian homes in particular utilized fenestration patterns that lent themselves to a cooling effect. By installing several windows on each floor of the home, windows could be opened on the basement and top floors to create circular airflow throughout the home.

Tall Ceilings

10 to 12 and even 14-foot ceilings were common in historic homes for a good reason. Hot air would rise to height of the ceiling leaving the lower areas of the home more comfortable.

Ceiling Fans

In addition to tall ceilings, historic homes with electricity often utilized ceiling fans to further circulate the air in the home.


Historic homes with large, double-hung windows were a perfect solution to cooling the home. By opening the top sash hot air could easily escape. At night, homeowners would open the lower sashes to let the cold night air in.


With lots of large windows in a historic home a lot of light and heat can get trapped in the home. With long draperies, that unwanted light (and heat) could be easily controlled.

Large windows and draperies in a Victorian home.
By Family member of JGKlein. Author died more than 70 years ago. (Family member of JGKlein) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Not common in today's architecture, transom windows located above doors in historic homes provided extra ventilation, allowing the hot air to escape and air to circulate.


Large wrap-around porches on historic homes provided shade from direct sunlight, keeping the sun away from the large windows.


A great insulator from the heat, brick and even stone masonry kept homes cool. The thicker the masonry, the better insulated the home could be from the heat, which is why many historic homes have 12 or even 24-inch thick walls.

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