It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidity!

21, July 2016

Can you imagine surviving a St. Louis summer without air conditioning? Well, now you don’t have to. Here's a look at the six main ways St. Louisans cooled off before the invention of A/C.

1. Fan yo’self

Photos of fans from the MHS collectionsFixed fan (left), folding fan (top right), and electric fan (bottom right). Missouri Historical Society collections.

Fans helped move the muggy air, and several styles graced St. Louis homes over the years.

  • Folding fans, like the top-right one above, originated in Asia thousands of years ago and gained popularity in the West via trade routes. Their complex construction and expense kept them out of reach of all but the most wealthy and powerful.
  • As printing technologies advanced, more affordable fixed fans emerged. An added bonus? They offered convenient surfaces for commemorative imagery or advertising. The one on the left above does double duty, commemorating the 1904 World’s Fair while promoting the Famous Clothing Store.
  • Electricity took the fan to a whole new level. No more wearing out your arm fanning yourself from that lovely St. Louis heat! The elegant Silver Swan fan on the bottom right above was made by Emerson Electric around 1934.

2. Get outside

Wrap-around porch and family on porchAn 1826 French Creole home with a wraparound porch and a 1910 St. Louis family cooling off outside. Missouri Historical Society collections.

Stoops and porches were classic places to catch a breeze in the city—and shoot the breeze with neighbors.

  • The top image shows how early French settlers used galleries, or porches, that often extended all the way around their homes. They offered a sheltered spot to catch the breeze, regardless of its direction.
  • In the bottom image, an African American family cools off on the stoop outside 2318 Pine Street a little over 100 years ago.

3. Bring your own shade

Photos of people using parasolsPeople carried parasols to block the harsh sun in mid- to late-19th-century St. Louis. Missouri Historical Society collections.

Those who couldn’t find shade brought it with them.

  • The woman in the top image, an 1852 daguerreotype view of 9th Street, did just that when she brought her sun umbrella, or parasol, with her for a stroll.
  • The family in the bottom image thought ahead and brought two parasols to their picnic in the late 1870s or early 1880s . . . although something tells me they probably could have used more.

4. Get wet

Photos of people cooling off with waterFriends playing with the water hose (1905–1915) and taking swim lessons (1914). Missouri Historical Society collections.

A little water play was (and still is) an instant way to cool off on a hot summer day.

  • These boys living in the early 20th century surely thought so—maybe they also thought that if the lawn needed watering, they might as well cool off too!
  • Swim lessons were another form of water fun, and apparently this 1914 swim lesson at Mullanphy Pool entertained the whole neighborhood.

5. Set sail

People cooling off on boatsSailboats and excursion boats helped people cool off. Missouri Historical Society collections.

Those less inclined to get wet kept the deck of a boat between themselves and the water, hoping to catch a breeze as they chugged down the Mighty Mississippi or sailed on a lake.

  • The children of the Lyon family clearly loved summers at their lake home in the early 1900s.
  • Captured on film by photographer Edward Goldberger, these nuns attending summer school at Saint Louis University in 1955 clearly enjoyed their break aboard the Admiral excursion boat.

6. Find the right food and drink

Photos of a beer garden and kids eating ice cream conesBeer gardens like Schnaider's and ice cream cones helped St. Louisans beat the heat. Missouri Historical Society collections.

When all else failed, people cooled off with their favorite frosty beverage or dessert.

  • Beer gardens were a classic St. Louis place to cool off in the summertime, and Schnaider’s Beer Garden took up almost an entire city block in south St. Louis.
  • The 1904 World’s Fair was a place to find out the latest in everything. Although this style in boys’ hats didn’t have staying power, eating ice cream out of cones sure did!

—Emily Jaycox, Head Librarian

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