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