By Intern Extraordinaire Tara Owens
It is pretty obvious, winter is over – not that we had much of a winter to begin with. The hot days of summer are beginning to make their presence known. While these hot, humid summer days seem unbearable, we are lucky to be living in the 21st century. We can turn on the air conditioning or turn up the ceiling fan, but our ancestors were not so lucky. Lacking these modern conveniences, colonial Americans came up with creative methods to beat the heat.
The most obvious ways people in the 18th century dealt with high temperatures are seen in the structures they built. In raising the main floor, adding high ceilings, and building walls with large openings that contained shutters, they maximized the benefits of cross ventilation (air passing through one side of the house and leaving on the opposite side). Cross ventilation provided breezes to combat hot stagnant air. Also, porches provided a nice place to sit and relax while taking advantage of natural air flow. Chimneys were built on exterior walls to minimize the transmission of heat to the interior. Kitchens were often separated from the main house, either attached by a hyphen (as at the Hammond-Harwood House) or in a completely separate outbuilding. Colonial Americans who could afford to construct brick dwellings benefited from that material’s natural properties; the high thermal inertia of bricks means that they absorb heat slowly and emit it slowly. The slow absorption of the heat meant that the interior temperature was lower throughout the day, but as the sun went down and the temperature dropped the absorbed heat was released.
Colonial Americans also wore different clothing during the summer in an effort to keep cool. Men often wore unlined coats or thin waistcoats of cotton or linen fabrics. The thinner and lighter the fabric, the better. Reducing the number of layers worn was another method used to combat the heat; women would lessen the number of their petticoats.
Wealthy people could even afford to build a bath house. Lord Dunmore, a colonial governor of Virginia, would retreat to his bath house in the summer, sit naked, and have servants pour cool water over him.
These are only a few examples of how 18th-century Americans kept cool during the summer months. If you know of any others, please feel free to enlighten us.
John A. Burns, “Energy Conserving Features Inherent in Older Homes,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with the U.S. Department of the Interior, 1982, http://www.nps.gov/tps/sustainability/greendocs/conservation-features-older-homes.pdf
Linda Baumgarten, “Looking at Eighteenth-Century Clothing,” The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, http://www.history.org/history/clothing/intro/clothing.cfm
Edwards Park, “To Bathe or Not to Bathe: Coming Clean in Colonial America,” The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/autumn00/bathe.cfm