7 Ways Homes Kept Cool Before The Age Of Air Conditioning

The modern air conditioner was invented only in the 1920s, and it didn’t become a common home feature until the latter half of the 20 th century.

But, while some of us might wonder how our grandparents survived hot and steamy summers, the fact is those older homes had a few tricks up their sleeves. They were designed and built with features to help them stay cool without AC.

Mary Wheeler Schap is a registered architect who designs and restores historic buildings to their former glory in Cincinnati, Ohio. She offered this expert insight into the features that made older homes livable in the heat.

In northern states, it was common to create a “stack effect” by opening windows in the basement and top floor. This generated a cool breeze through the house. Further south, before AC many homes were built on blocks, allowing breezes to flow underneath and help keep them cool all summer long.

Ceilings as high as 10, 12 and even 14 feet were common in older homes. As heat rose to the ceiling, lower areas stayed cool and comfortable. Ceiling fans-powered by electricity or elaborate rope systems-also facilitated air movement.

A transom-a small window over a door-allowed warmer air at the ceiling to circulate up to higher floors, providing more air movement throughout the house. Transoms over exterior doors often had hinges and special hardware. This allowed easy access to open and close, helping create airflow while still providing security.

Many older and historic homes had large, double-hung windows. Opening the top sash would allow hot air near the ceiling to escape. Opening the bottom sash, especially at night, allowed cool air to flow inside. Rooms had many windows, some as large as doors. Thick, long draperies were often used in these large windows to keep out the heat. People would “draw the drapes” to help keep a room cool without sacrificing light.

I’m a historic preservationist and have been to many workshops and classes about window restoration. Most people have no idea how original windows were meant to function. When you open both sashes to the middle, heat escapes from the top and cool comes in from the bottom. If you do that in your entire house, you have an ac that works almost as well as modern ACs. The thing is, people have painted their sashes shut, especially upper sashes. Most people don’t even know that upper sashes are supposed to open. People installed triple track aluminum windows which only have one screen, at the bottom, which makes two sashes useless and why most upper sashes ended up painted/caulked shut.

If you restore your original double hung windows, and install a wood storm window with screens on upper and lower, you will have a window that is just as energy efficient as “replacement” windows and will outlast and outperform any new window. Unfortunately, people don’t believe this, they just believe what the window salesman tell them. You’ll NEVER save money with replacement windows. There is no return on investment EVER because it would take a minimum of 40yrs to see a return and no replacement window would last that long before needing replaced again. The data is out there. There have been thermal imaging studies done on the efficiency of original windows and on opening both sashes for air condition. Very efficient. With a minimal amount of work, any home owner can restore original windows, for cheaper than the cost of replacement, and have a much higher quality window that will last another 100yrs.”


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