One of the most terrifying things that is said here in the Deep South is, “My air conditioner went out!” Believe me, I know. My central AC was down for almost three summers. Only a window unit in my bedroom saved me from the heat and humidity of the South. The advent of air conditioning changed the South, made it more livable during our long, hot summers. It also, however, changed much of Southern culture. What was uniquely Southern began to disappear and we adapted cultural attitudes much more like the North. Air conditioning changed the South so much we actually studied its effects in some of our college history classes. I was a child when air conditioning began to spread everywhere in the South, so I have memories of the days before cold air was the rule.
The AC wasn’t invented in the South. Willis Carrier created the first electro-mechanical air conditioner in Brooklyn, NY in 1902. The name air conditioning was given to the device by two southerners, Stuart Cramer and I. H. Hardeman. It was businesses that first took advantage of the cold air. Before the air conditioner, many businesses that existed in the South would close their doors for the summer because it was simply too hot. The inefficiency of employees due to heat made it hard for businesses in the South to compete with their Northern counterparts. The boom in Southern cities and businesses that started after World War II and expanded in the 1960s can be linked directly to the spread of air conditioning. Those early ACs were ill-suited for homes or apartments. They were too large and used refrigerant that was either flammable or toxic. The invention of non-toxic refrigerants and smaller compressors allowed these systems to expand into homes in the 1920s, but only the wealthiest could afford them. The invention of the window unit AC in the 1950s gave average homeowners access to in-house cooling for the first time. The 1960s saw the spread of residential ACs. We got ours in 1968.
A lot of images of Southern culture are based on the days before even electricity. Sitting on the front porch with hand held fans, long afternoon naps when it was too hot to be working, high ceilings and lots of big windows to maximize airflow all contributed to the image folks have of the South. Electricity changed some of that. Electric fans took the place of hand held fans in some places, although those hand held fans lingered for a long time. My grandmother had a stack of them and they were in churches for a long time. Now they are collector’s items. The afternoon naps took place until that cold air took over the houses. New houses are now built with controlled environments determining the blue print because airflow only matters in regards to keeping the controlled air in and the environment out. We sit on the front porch, sometimes drinking mint juleps, but only after the sun sets and the temperatures go down. Now we work, shop, and play during the heat of the day because our world, at least the interior world, is cool and comfortable.
I love my air-conditioned interior environment and I am grateful for it. But every now and then I wish I had one of those hand held fans and was sitting on my front porch; or was taking a nap in the afternoon instead of feeling like I should be doing some type of work. At least I can still sip a mint julep with my friends. Time for that right now.