17 Historical Reactions to Air Conditioning

The Pittsburgh Press - Jul 5, 1955
The Pittsburgh Press - Jul 5, 1955 / The Pittsburgh Press - Jul 5, 1955

On July 17, 1902, Willis Haviland Carrier finished drawing up plans for what is today considered the first modern air conditioning system. It was installed in a printing business in Brooklyn in 1903, and in 1906, Carrier patented a refined version, called “Apparatus for Treating Air.” By 1936, Carrier predicted that in the future, "the average businessman will rise, pleasantly refreshed, having slept in an air-conditioned room, he will travel in an air-conditioned train, and toil in an air-conditioned office, store, or factory—or dine in an air-conditioned restaurant. In fact, the only time he will know anything about heat waves or arctic blasts will be when he exposes himself to the natural discomforts of out-of-doors."

Though Carrier is often called the father of air conditioning, his system wasn’t the first system—and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Here’s what people thought of “colderizing,” "air chilling," “mechanical weather,” and being “cooled by refrigeration” in its early days.

1. “Some Crank in Florida”

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When Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola, Florida, was treating victims of yellow fever in the 1840s, he cooled his infirmary using a mthod that involved hanging a pan of ice from the ceiling. But eventually, his supply of ice ran out. Gorrie began tinkering, and in 1851, he received a patent for a refrigerating machine that made both ice and cool air. Unfortunately, the reception to his device was anything but warm, thanks in part to the Northern Ice Lobby, which made money by shipping ice down south in the summer. Gorrie was roundly mocked in the media. “There is Dr. Gorrie, a crank down in Apalachicola, Florida, that thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty,” The New York Globe crowed. The same year he obtained his patent, Gorrie’s financial backer died, and the artificial ice machine did, too.

2. “Struck with Wonder”

But by the 20th century, the world was ready for air conditioning. Though it had been installed in the new New York Stock Exchange building in 1903 by Alfred R. Wolff, A/C had its public debut in 1904, at the St. Louis World’s Fair in the Missouri Building. The official Fair book noted that “a refrigeration plant installed in the basement has the capacity to reduce the temperature in the building to 70 degrees even when the mercury may be in the 90s outside.” According to the November 1904 issue of Ice and Refrigeration Magazine, “Visitors, not aware that the building was artificially cooled, were struck with wonder and were unable to account for the very perceptible change felt in the temperatures.”

3. “Exclaims with Delight”

Movie theaters were among the first businesses to install air conditioning. In 1922, Willis Haviland Carrier installed his system in Sid Grauman’s Metropolitain Theater, which advertised its new system by saying that the theaters were “cool as a mountain top—the ice system does it … it’s always fair weather inside.” Then, in 1924, Carrier outfitted the Palace Theater in Dallas. Owner Will Horwitz gave the system a glowing review, writing “The cooling plant is revolutionizing picture show attendance in Houston. Each patron exclaims with delight when he gets inside the doorway. The plant is working perfectly. Our engineer says he has nothing to do on the job but loaf” [PDF].

4. “Yes, the People Are Going to Like It”

In 1925, Carrier installed his system in New York City’s Rivoli Theater, which heavily advertised its new toy. According to Margaret Ingels in Willis Carrier: Father of Air Conditioning, here’s how Carrier described the night later:

Long before the doors opened, people lined up at the box office—curious about 'cool comfort' as offered by the managers. It was like a World Series crowd waiting for bleacher seats. They were not only curious, but skeptical—all of the women and some of the men had fans—a standard accessory of that day. It takes time to pull down the temperature in a quickly filled theater on a hot day, and a still longer time for a packed house. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the fans dropped into laps as the effects of the air conditioning system became evident. Only a few chronic fanners persisted, but soon they, too, ceased fanning. We had stopped them 'cold' and breathed a great sigh of relief. We then went into the lobby and waited for Mr. Zukor [the president of Paramount Pictures] to come downstairs. When he saw us, he did not wait for us to ask his opinion. He said tersely, “Yes, the people are going to like it.”

The Rivoli made $100,000 more that summer than it had the previous one

5. “An Actual Relief”

In a June 1925 article, a writer for the New York Times visited the Colony Theater and wrote, “When we entered … the other afternoon, we noticed, as we did at other theaters, the change in temperature, which was an actual relief. It was so comfortable that one dreaded going on into the hot sun.”

6. “The Naturally Pure Air of the Mountains”

When one Florida theater installed a refrigeration plant in September 1926, the St. Petersburg Times said that a visit “imparts the same physical exhilaration that you feel after a two-hour vacation in the naturally pure air of the mountains … now the theatre is a haven of comfort and pleasure, a place to be sought rather than avoided, regardless of the atmospheric conditions outside.”

7.“Many Compliments”

One of the first department stores to install air conditioning was Detroit's JL Hudson's in the summer of 1926. According to Marsha E. Ackerman in Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air-Conditioning, Hudson's advertised that visitors could "shop in comfort. Pure fresh cool air makes shopping in the basement store a pleasure. On warm days it's 8 to 12 degrees colder in the basement store than street temperature." The building superintendent told Carrier that the store was "15 to 25 degrees cooler than outside ... we have received many compliments on the air condition in our store." A decade later, the store sent a testimonial to Carrier via telegram: "As the first large users of air-conditioning we have never regretted installation. Effect on business has been good beyond question."

8. “This is Not a Fairy Story”

In 1928, the St. Petersburg Times looked toward the future of air conditioning—the home. Giddily, the newspaper wrote,

"Press the button, John! And turn on the cold. This room is too warm to be comfortable," will say the wives of Johns all over the country some day. And John will push the button and in a few minutes the room will be comfortable. This is not a fairy story. It is a picture of a future modern home, electrically refrigerated … If you are astounded at this thought, reflect a few moments. The primitive caves of our ancestors were crude protection from the weather. Our forefathers later fashioned walls and a covering roof. Out of these attempts, over a period of time, has evolved the modern home, not only protecting those within it from the forces of nature, but actually harnessing these forces to serve those within the home. Think of it! Heat when you want it and as long as you want it. Running water. Electric lights. Electric labor-saving devices of all types, and then the newest development in the electrical field, electric refrigeration.

9. “This is regular Republican atmosphere”

In 1928, after complaints about the lack of fresh air in the Capitol building, air conditioning was installed and operational by the beginning of the next session. To quell the fears of Senators who were unaccustomed to cool air inside, fliers were posted that explained that "the sensation of chill experienced upon entering the Senate Chamber is due principally to the dryness of the air causing the evaporation of the slight amount of moisture of the skin. After the completion of this evaporation the body will be perfectly comfortable, for the actual difference in temperature between the inside and outside air is very small. No fear may be felt by the occupants of the Senate Chamber from the conditions produced by this new system of ventilation and air conditioning.”

Though the air undoubtedly increased comfort in the chambers, some still complained that it was too cold. According to Cool Comfort, John E. Rankin, a Democrat from Mississippi lodged the first complaint on May 28, 1929, saying "the atmosphere is too cool in this room. On yesterday it was 75 by thermometer ... and 91 degrees on the outside. Fifteen or twenty degrees difference is too much ... This is regular Republican atmosphere, and it is enough to kill anybody if it continues." His declaration was met with applause.

10. “Every Day Inside is a Fine Day”

Many publications covered A/C, and how it worked, with glee. In an April 1932 article, Popular Science noted that, “With complete air conditioning apparatus in the home, broiling August sun will mean as little as piercing January cold; every day inside is a fine day!”

11. "Just As Clean When Ready to Leave the Train"

In the early '30s, according to Cool Comfort, railroad companies began equipping their cars with air conditioning. Carrier employee L. Logan Lewis tested out an air conditioned car in 1932 and wrote to his aunt that "I am completely sold on air-conditioning for passenger trains. I was comfortable at all times and felt just as clean when ready to leave the train as when I entered it in Lexington, Kentucky."

12. "The President did not like air-conditioning"

Carrier installed an air conditioning system in the White House for Herbert Hoover in 1929, and replaced that unit with a better one in 1934, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President. But FDR was no fan: In a memo, Carrier employee Logan Lewis wrote that the president "had a strong dislike of air-conditioning and never hesitated to say so. The outspoken comments that he frequently made to the press gave the installation some pretty bad publicity." In 1952, speechwriter Samuel I. Rosenman recalled that "The President did not like air-conditioning. It seemed to affect his sinuses. He did not even use an electric fan ...; he never seemed to mind the heat ... at least he seldom turned the air conditioning on."

13. “Almost at the ‘touch of a button’”

Self-contained air conditioning units for the home finally debuted in the 1930s. In a 1935 issue of Popular Mechanics, the magazine described the machine: “Compact and so low in height that it fits below the window sill of the average home or office, a self-contained air-conditioning unit is ready for the market … Almost at the ‘touch of a button,’ it is possible to have the air cooled, dehumidified, circulated and filtered.”

14. “Doggone Cool”

Carrier took its A/C systems—including home units—to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The company’s “Igloo of Tomorrow,” attended by Mr. Carrier and some snow bunnies scooping manufactured slush, opened on April 25, 1939; outside, the weather was 90 degrees, but inside, it was a delightful 70 degrees. As a visitor to the fair wrote in the Miami News a month later, “It’s always doggone cool in the Carrier igloo.” 

Boy’s Life magazine noted that “a manufacturer of air-conditioning equipment has a building resembling a huge Eskimo igloo, with a scintillating aurora borealis playing over the snow-white dome of the structure.” By 1940, people could literally cool their heels there. According to the Nevada Daily Mail, 

Holding out promise of a cure for the blight of last year’s fairgoers—"Fairground Feet"—this foot-cooling device called the "Cold Dog Stand," has been installed at the Carrier Igloo of Tomorrow, air conditioning exhibit at the 1940 New York World’s Fair, for the comfort of walk-weary visitors. Pretty Eunice Healey, Broadway musical comedy star, finds the gadget a real treat after roaming about the grounds. Cool air is circulated by means of suction fans under the comfortable foot panels at a velocity of 300 feet per minute, creating a feeling of "walking on air." A miniature air conditioning system under the hood cools and conditions air for the machine.

15. "The greatest contribution to civilization"

In 1947, British scholar S.F. Markham declared that "The greatest contribution to civilization in this century may well be air-conditioning—and America leads the way." In 1953, Fortune wrote "The rump of a room conditioner bulging out of the window is becoming as unexclusive a social symbol as the television aerial overhead."

16. "The Men Leave on Their Coats"

According to Cool Comfort, in 1954, both House Beautiful and House & Home magazines published the results of a survey of well-to-do Dallas and Houston residents about air conditioning in their homes. "When we have a party now, the men leave on their coats," one said. "We run our machine 24 hours a day," said another. "It costs us much less than we'd thought, and we save part of the cost in fewer restaurant bills." A Texas pediatrician declared that "there is no doubt that air-conditioning is better for children," while one woman noted that "The movies and the automobile broke up family life, but television and air-conditioning are bringing families together again."

17. “My Tips Are Bigger”

The first air conditioned cars debuted in the 1930s, and by the mid-’50s, most cars were equipped with it. In a 1958 issue of the New Yorker, the talk of the town section—written by M. Pittman and John Updike—recounted a cabbie who “readily confessed” that he used to hate hacking:

In the summer, it was a nightmare. Now I look forward to a day’s work; I can hardly wait to get out of the apartment. No more noise. No more dirt. No more heat. It makes you feel—you know—different, almost distinguished. You’d be surprised how many people see the blue sticker saying ‘air-conditioned’ on the window and stop me and ask just to be drive around awhile, to cool off. I figure business has improved twenty-five percent since I got my unit in. On top of that, my tips are bigger.

The hack concluded that "In about five years, all the cabs will have air-conditioning. It’s going to be real big business, real big."

Additional reporting by Roger Cormier and Arthur Holland Michel.