I went to an outdoor event in Washington, D.C., last week. Boy, was it hot under the noon sun.
It was so hot, I saw a mother swipe a Popsicle from her own child. I saw a Republican share an air-conditioned cab with a Democrat. I saw senators engage in civil conversation with each other so they could spend more time in their air-conditioned chambers.
In any event, I read, with interest, a Washington Post story that described how D.C. used to be, prior to the advent of air conditioning.
As it goes, in 1909 President William Howard Taft used electric fans blowing over bins of ice in the attic to attempt to cool the White House. It didn’t work so well. Taft slept outside on a specially built White House porch to keep cool at night.
In 1914, Woodrow Wilson avoided the unbearable heat by moving into a tent in the Rose Garden.
President Calvin Coolidge “fought the humid summer months by making sure ‘a gadget filled with chemicals supposed to purify, or at least deodorize, the air’ was on his desk at all times,” according to, WhiteHouseHistory.org.
Air conditioning sure has changed Washington and the rest of the country — and not always for the better.
Before air conditioning, the heat drove us outside and brought us together. In the old days, friends sought the shade of trees or a refreshing dip in a lake or river. In the evening, neighbors sat on front porches, sipping lemonade and telling stories. At night, folks slept in groups at parks or, in Washington, along the banks of the Potomac.
Even in the 1970s, when I was a kid, few homes had air conditioning. Our windows were always open. At night, you could hear neighbors talking, a distant baby crying and Pirates announcer Bob Prince calling a game on somebody’s porch radio: “He missed it by a gnat’s eyelash!” In the mornings, I’d wake early to the sound of chirping birds. I could smell the cool dew outside my window and the toast and scrambled eggs my father was cooking in the kitchen.
But air conditioning has ruined such sensations. In the neighborhood where I grew up, every house is sealed these days. All you hear outside is the constant hum of air conditioners running.
Air conditioning has changed our architecture. Homes used to have high ceilings, cross—ventilation and large hallways to dissipate heat. Now we live in efficient ranches or over—designed suburban monstrosities that put the porch in the back and the garage in the front.
Commercial buildings used to have windows that opened, but that isn’t necessary anymore. Today’s glass—plated buildings are designed to keep the light and air out, so that we are oblivious to whatever season it may be.
But these annoyances are nothing compared to the way air conditioning has changed Washington. Before air conditioning, federal agencies routinely shut down when the heat got too high, giving them that much less time to think up ways to spend our money.
When Congress got air conditioning in the late 1920s, America took a turn for the worse. Before air conditioning, Washington was empty from mid—June to September. Now, free from worries about the heat and humidity, our Republican Congress is finding all kinds of opportunities to renege on their promises to fix health care, lower our taxes and unleash the economy.
Perhaps if we shut off their taxpayer—funded AC they might be more prone to come to a much—needed consensus?
We’ve had enough of their hot air. Maybe a dose of Mother Nature’s hot air will bring them to their senses.
Tom Purcell is author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood” and “Wicked Is the Whiskey.”