The summer temperatures have been hitting record highs in the past week. As miserable as it has been, we enjoy the advantage of air conditioning and light clothing with arms and legs often exposed.
A century ago, of course, there was no air conditioning; proper ladies and gentlemen would not be seen in public with arms or legs exposed. Men wore dark frock coats over long-sleeve shirts; women wore full-length dresses over bustles, slips, and corsets. The higher one’s social status, the more miserably one had to dress. It was part of a long tradition of stoicism in the face of insufferable heat and humidity.
British colonists were stunned by the heat of the Southern colonies, not just for the physical discomfort, but for its feared moral effects. From biblical and other readings, Europeans associated hot climates with Babylon, Africa, and other places of sin and godless debauchery. It was feared that long exposure to heat would turn good Christians into heathens.
But history shows that there were many who were willing to take the chance, drawn by the wealth that could be wrested from the soil in the form of crops and timber. As much as anything, it was weather which determined that the South would become the land of staple crop agriculture, leading directly to slavery and the plantation economy, which led to radical regionalism.
The climate shaped more than Southern politics and economy. The heat defined the architecture of the region. Those who could afford it built houses with high ceilings and windows, breezeways and porches — anything to dissipate the heat within and provide relief outside the house. Even urban dwellers considered a front porch to be as important to a good house as a kitchen or bedroom. On the porch, people could cool themselves in the evening, read their newspapers, and greet their neighbors as they created a lasting tradition of hospitality and story-telling.
According to historian Sue Bridwell Beckham, “The porches of classic Southern buildings may have borrowed from ancient Greek porticos, but the front porch as an extended living space almost surely owes a great debt to the experience in dealing with an inhospitably hot and humid climate, experience that Africans and West Indians brought with them to the American South.”
The ancient paradox of the South was that this land of agricultural wealth was also the land of illness and lassitude. Malaria and yellow fever were borne by the mosquito; the debilitating hookworm parasite entered the body through the feet in a region where much of the population went barefoot for many months. Some historians speculate that the high mortality rate in the fever-plagued summer months contributed to the Southern sense of fatalism.
Starting in the early 19th century, the wealthiest planters of the region summered in Saratoga, N.Y., or Newport, R.I., far from the stifling heat and the ubiquitous threat of malaria. Their slaves and overseers would be left back on the plantations to labor in the humidity and plague of mosquitoes.
By the 1850s, tensions had grown untenable between the Southern planter elite and their Northern counterparts in commerce and industry. Snubbed Southerners abandoned their Northern retreats in favor of the more hospitable mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. We still go there and it is still a wonderful place to spend a few days in the torrid southern summer.
Second-tier planters sought out local highlands or beaches to build their summer homes. In the Lowcountry, Eddingsville Beach (destroyed by the Great Storm of 1893), and the highland pine forest of Pinopolis in Berkeley County, became popular summer retreats. 19th-century Carolinians did not know the link between mosquitoes and malaria, but experience had taught that highlands and beaches were safer places in the summer than interior lowlands, where the great rice and indigo plantations lay.
In the 1830s, Dr. John Gorrie, a Florida physician, attempted to lower the body temperature of malaria and yellow fever victims by blowing air over buckets of ice suspended from the hospital ceiling. He eventually patented an ice-making machine, but Willis Haviland Carrier didn’t invent modern air conditioning until 1902. His first customer was in Brooklyn, but he would find his greatest market south of Gotham.
In the last half century, air conditioning has transformed the region. It is impossible to imagine modern office towers or Sunbelt metropolises such as Atlanta or Jacksonville without it. The technology has made the South hospitable to millions of new residents. Along with civil rights legislation, it has created a new South, more progressive and diverse and economically robust.
Even the most unreconstructed yahoo would not live without his air conditioner, proving perhaps that cooling technology has done as much to reconstruct the South as any Yankee army or meddling Congress.