Wednesday, June 11, 2008

St. Willis

I'd like to suggest the canonization of Willis Carrier, the engineer credited with inventing modern air conditioning. Like the rest of the East Coast, New York City has just emerged from an unusually early heat wave with high temperatures and brutal humidity that's typically experienced in August, when the City becomes a ghost town inhabited by tourists and those unable to take vacations. Add the heated sidewalks and buildings to the mix and we have a perfect environment for sauna-like conditions. Under these circumstances I'm eternally grateful to Mr. Carrier because I just don't fare well in the heat. Thankfully I sit in an air-conditioned office (with a remote control for the unit!) and go home to an air-conditioned apartment. The subway platforms can be brutal, but at least the cars are cooled. I've visited the NYC Transit Museum in Brooklyn and stepped on to the old cars that only had ceiling fans. I break into a sweat just thinking about how hot those cars must have been. Indeed, it's hard to imagine what it must have been like in years before air conditioning became a nearly universal amenity in this country. It was regarded as a luxury, something reserved for theaters, hospitals, hotels, and the wealthy. In some cases it was even regarded as a sign of waste, weakness, and frivolous consumption through what I guess we could call a "real men use fans" mentality.

Garrison Keillor raises this issue in Lake Wobegon Days, pointing out that during his youth the one resident in town who had an air conditioner was regarded with suspicion and deemed "uppity" by neighbors. I remember thinking that some of my friends' families must have been "richer" than us because they had centrally air-conditioned homes. It was an expensive luxury that we didn't have. In fact, our family didn't have AC until the early 1970s, when my parents bought a large window unit and installed it upstairs. They'd supplement it with fans to distribute the cool air between the four bedrooms. Several years later they finally purchased another unit for the kitchen. Although I don't really recall being ridiculously hot, I'm sure as a compulsive complainer I voiced my displeasure with the temperature in my bedroom. I also remember retreating to the kitchen and sleeping on a cot when the upstairs machine would decide to quit.

Now, of course, they have central air - installed after my brother and I had left home! With high-end storm windows and doors the place seems almost hermetically sealed, isolated from the outside environment like a space station or underwater lab. One expects a whoosh! of air when opening a door as if passing through an airlock. Sure, I'm exaggerating, but the experience underscores the extent to which air conditioning has isolated us from our neighbors and communities. We're sealed away in these artificial environments, venturing from home to car to mall to car and back home again. Yes, we're more comfortable, more productive, and, for people with breathing issues, probably healthier. But did we lose a part of ourselves with the advent of air conditioning? Was it worth it?

Nearly twenty-five years ago historian Raymond Arsenault wrote a groundbreaking article for The Journal of Southern History entitled "The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture" (Nov. 1984). It would be easy to take for granted the impact of this ubiquitous machine. But as Arsenault pointed out, the effect of air conditioning was monumental. It encouraged in-migration to the South and spurred the population explosion of the Sun Belt. It also proved a stimulus to industrial output and economic growth with the cooling of factories and offices. Air conditioning even altered the architectural landscape, with homes losing their large windows, transoms, and substantial porches. The cooled environment also made possible the construction of a large-scale suburban South. In the end, Professor Arsenault concludes, it "weakened the bond between humanity and the natural environment." Nevertheless, I'll stick with air conditioning when it's necessary and open the windows when it's possible.

1 comment:

jblack designs said...

Interesting book. I'll have to look that up.

I've often said, when people say TV was the demise of kids' playing outside, that the true culprit was AC. I had no idea how many aspects of life it truly changed, but I can look back and see these in my own lifetime.

I'm with you, though: I came home to a broken central air unit, and even though I was able to borrow a small window unit until the whole system gets replaced ... lie without AC is, as the song goes, too darn hot.