A Free-Market Energy Blog

Air Conditioning: Thank You Fossil Fuels

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- July 5, 2023

It’s the time of the year when the climate alarmists are out in force, blaming the severity of every heat wave or heat dome on … man-made global warming. I sometimes comment on the dire posts with the simple point: stop whining and turn on the air conditioner, or add a mist machine to your most precious outdoor space.

I heard stories from my father about how, prior to A/C, his parents used to buy blocks of ice that were then placed in front of an electric fan to produced conditioned air. Cool!  No whining, but action. Adaptation and, going forward, resiliency.

I was reminded of this when I read a recent recent post at LinkedIn by Frederick Ruehr, most recently with the Georgetown University Law Center, on seven ways our ancestors coped with the heat of summer.

The modern air conditioner was invented only in the 1920’s and it didn’t become a common home feature until the latter half of the 20th century. But, while some of us might wonder how our grandparents survived hot and steamy summers, the fact is those older homes had a few tricks up their sleeves. They were designed and built with features to help them stay cool without AC.

Airflow: In northern states, it was common to create a “stack effect” by opening windows in the basement and top floor. This generated a cool breeze through the house. Further south, before AC many homes were built on blocks, allowing breezes to flow underneath and help keep them cool all summer long.

Tall ceilings: Ceilings as high as 10, 12 and even 14 feet were common in older homes. As heat rose to the ceiling, lower areas stayed cool and comfortable. Ceiling fans—powered by electricity or elaborate rope systems—also facilitated air movement.

Transoms: A transom—a small window over a door—allowed warmer air at the ceiling to circulate up to higher floors, providing more air movement throughout the house. Transoms over exterior doors often had hinges and special hardware. This allowed easy access to open and close, helping create airflow while still providing security.

Large windows: Many older and historic homes had large, double-hung windows. Opening the top sash would allow hot air near the ceiling to escape. Opening the bottom sash, especially at night, allowed cool air to flow inside. Rooms had many windows, some as large as doors. Thick, long draperies were often used in these large windows to keep out the heat. People would “draw the drapes” to help keep a room cool without sacrificing light.

Porches: Wraparound porches offered shade from the direct sun while still allowing light to pour through windows. Screened and furnished sleeping porches were also very common. People would sleep outside to catch the cool breeze of the summer night without all the bugs. Many believed that fresh air had health benefits.

Reflective roofs: Many older homes had light-colored or silver-metal roofs made of lead, tin or copper. This was a great way to reflect heat away from the home to reduce interior temperatures. It’s quite a contrast to today’s dark asphalt shingles that can absorb a lot of the sun’s rays.

Thick walls: If you could afford them, thick brick masonry or stone walls were a great insulator and kept homes cool before AC. Walls 12 to 24 inches thick were common in the Deep South, blocking the heat from the inside as the day wore on, and providing some warmth as the evening chill set in. — with Eddiee Brown.

All of these seven strategies require(d) wealth. And buying blocks of ice for electric fans required wealth. Ice houses themselves were a luxury from affordable energy. And to afford electricity, affordable coal and ‘white coal’ (hydropower).

Private property rights, voluntary transactions, the rule of law, and government neutrality embedded in a constitutional Republic are behind all of this, which gets to Alex Epstein and Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas (2022), a book that is driving the debate over energy plenty versus energy scarcity.


  1. John W. Garrett  

    I recall being told by an elder that on unbearably hot summer nights her family kept a bathtub full of water enabling periodic dips for evaporating cool offs, if necessary.


  2. Tim Roesch  

    We own a 1967 house built in Northern Virginia. It has a ‘whole house fan’ in the attic that pulls warm air from the downstairs levels.!


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