What does it do for us?
As I was driving on an 80-degree evening at the beach, I pulled up to a stoplight. Next to me was a large SUV with the windows up and AC on. I suspected mom and daughter were sipping on some cool drinks.
I was driving a convertible with the top down, and it struck me, “How has air conditioning changed our lives?”
On one hand, it has created an industry and demand for energy. It has made the production of cool environments “necessary” in many instances, over our hot, humid summers. Consider weddings, viewings, Mass, and other solemn events without the benefit of air conditioning. But then, consider the energy load of demand for air conditioning in all of those summer moments with which we can identify.
Do we really need the AC all the time?
Growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s without AC, I recall long summer evenings on the porch, taking two bathes a day and using talcum powder to keep cool. I recall family gatherings under shade trees in the park and the occasional trip to the movies – especially for cousins and sisters-in-law who were expecting since the movie theaters had air conditioning. It was a respite from the heat of summer.
Around 1968 or 1969, my father installed a window air conditioner unit in our cape cod home to cool the first floor. He installed it in the dining room window at the rear of the house, making the dining room like the arctic circle and unusable for the summer season.
The AC would shoot cool air down the hallway to the kitchen and then wrap into the den, the last locale for the cool air on the first floor. We all dreaded bedtime as we moved from Heaven to what felt like Hades on the second floor.
We did have a larger attic fan that created a damp breeze across our bed sheets during the night, but my Italian father, concerned for our health, felt that the damp breeze was not too good for us. So, after we were all in bed he would turn off the fan at midnight, and we would begin to sweat through our talcum powder.
So what about air conditioning?
It certainly helped my mother breathe more easily in her elder years as she dealt with high blood pressure and heart issues. But at other times, it seems overused. Sometimes we need to sweat and appreciate nature’s season.
I happened to be in Lewes, Delaware for the Tomato Festival this year. I wandered into the one-room schoolhouse that the city’s Historical Society had renovated. It was, of course, air conditioned. Other than the AC, it was accurately renovated to have but one pot-belly stove at the front of the room. The school was in use until the mid-1930s.
In the last several years of my administration at K-12 independent schools, I have often heard parents ask as soon as the new school year begins if or when the AC will be turned on for the students. They believed that students learn better in environments when the temperature is not so uncomfortable and distracting.
I wonder how cold and how hot the Lewes schoolhouse got back in its days of use. Were there significant losses in learning among the students who passed through its doors?
The Patio, home of John and Helena Raskob, was built in 1918 sans air conditioning. I have a window unit in The Headmaster’s Office, John Raskob’s former home office on the Patio’s first floor. But I often wonder how the family fared during the summer months in the house without AC, especially with the propriety of dress that was expected in those days.
Are we perhaps too “soft”? Do we not enjoy nature’s seasons for what they are as they occur? Do we not sweat enough?
I don’t know the absolute answer, but I do think that it is an interesting note of our present culture – that we have the option to smell the visceral, authentic world around us, or edit the experience to best fit our life’s situation.
When said that way, it sounds like a cop-out. The “natural, the organic, the real,” as marketers would put it, is most desirable. But I am not sure. I think the answer lies somewhere in between.