Porch Living and Air Conditioning

National Archives and Records AdministrationARC ID 532649 via Wiki Commons

Last weekend’s weather knocked out the power in some areas, and we started speculating what life was like here in the South before air conditioning. Not that we’re that old, but some of us do remember what it was like--sleeping porches, open windows, box fans, and lots of time in the shade--it took a while before air conditioning was a given, like it is now. Lucky for us, older homes in the South were designed to help keep us cool: high ceilings, large doors and windows, open porches and shade trees, and houses were properly situated to capture prevailing breezes. According to historian Raymond Arsenault, these architectural elements and techniques to live with the heat have historically been important elements of “an aesthetic and social milieu that is distinctively southern.” So, has air conditioning changed us?

The Air Condition Revolution

Thirty years ago, Arsenault was one of the first historians to address the important influence of climate on culture. He wrote, “Climate may not be the key to human history, but...in some areas, such as the American South, it matters a great deal, or at least it did until the coming of air conditioning.” Air conditioning came to the South in a series of waves over a span of about seventy years. Although air conditioning was invented in 1902 for industrial purposes, most people living in the South probably didn’t even know it existed until the mid-1920s, when the primary function turned to human comfort.

The 1930s age of ‘comfort cooling’ began where, exactly? At the movies! During Hollywood’s Golden Age, movie theaters that previously had to shut down during the summer now drew large crowds with frost-covered signs boasting “20 DEGREES COOLER INSIDE!” Southern railways also offered air-cooled comfort with the 1932 development of the “Frigicar.” Air conditioning was integrated much more gradually in other areas of southern life, but people flocked indoors to escape the heat as more and more buildings became air conditioned.

King Street, 1940s by Jack Taylor K224D7 49354 via Creative Commons

Most southern department stores continued to use ceiling fans until the 1950s. The Francis Marion Hotel, built in 1924, became Charleston’s first fully air conditioned hotel in 1952. By 1960, air conditioned hotels and motels were so common in the South that the extra charge ($1) was dropped. Newly-built banks, offices, and government buildings were constructed with air conditioning in place, and older structures were gradually refitted. Only hospitals took longer than schools to become air conditioned. Many of us remember the open windows and box fans at school--even today, there are more than a few schools in the South without air conditioning.

What about at home? At the beginning of World War II, some of the wealthiest southern families had air conditioned homes, but it wasn’t until the inexpensive window unit was made available in 1951 that air conditioning really took off here. In 1955, 10% of homes in the South had air conditioning, in 1960 it was 18%, and in 1970, 50%. According to the American Housing Survey, 98% of homes in the South have air conditioning today. It seems to be a given, an inalienable right.

The "Americanization of Dixie"

But has air conditioning really changed the Southern way of life? If so, how?

First of all, population growth. The 1970 census was dubbed “The Air-Conditioned Census” by the New York Times, as it reflected the role of air conditioning in the reversal of migration from out-of-the-South to in--a first since the Civil War. Air conditioning wasn’t the only reason for this change, but a very powerful one. Suddenly, anyone could live in comfort year-round in semitropical heat--and they came, and did. They brought new ideas and lifestyles with them, disrupting the region’s historical cultural isolation; the cultural identity of the South was diluted, its population increasingly heterogeneous.

Industrialization. The “New South” finally arrived, and manufacturing began to overtake agriculture as a means to make a living. Working conditions improved. The economy boomed. Poverty declined. This was huge: since the Civil War, poverty had been a distinctive southern experience.

Urbanization. The South still has more rural areas than much of the country, but accelerated growth of cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston would not likely have happened without air conditioning. And these cities wouldn’t have looked the same either--can you imagine skyscraper office buildings or high-rise apartment buildings without air conditioning? Can you imagine Charleston looking like that? (Thanks, Preservation Society of Charleston.)

Architecture. The South’s architecture has always allowed for a sense of place--people knew where they were, knew that they were in the South. Since air conditioning, proliferation of look-alike chain stores and the construction of shopping malls leads to the sense that, well, you could be anywhere. Anywhere USA. With the widespread use of air conditioning also came the development of tract housing--another type of Anywhere USA architecture. In contrast to older homes, modern homes are built to accommodate air conditioning; they aren’t meant to be ventilated, typically have lower ceiling and fewer windows, and they rarely have porches.

Porches, porches, porches. Porches have been a cornerstone of Southern families and communities for hundreds of years. Porches are where families sit in the evenings together, where neighbors call to visit. Porches are for swinging and rocking, telling stories, playing games, laughing. Well, all is not lost after all. We still have--and enjoy--our porches here in Charleston!

See all of the lovely porches we have to offer at the moment here. And our newest porch on the market is at 26 Pitt Street, offered byJohn Payne.

Now, some might say that this homogenization of the nation has left the South little distinction from the rest of the country. If that’s the case, then why do we keep getting all of these awards for being the friendliest, best, everybody’s-favorite city? We’ll have to tackle that one another day.

Porch Perfect! 26 Pitt Street, offered byJohn Payne