One day in the not-too-distant future, when you are gathered around the barbeque with your neighbors to share a few burgers and a more than a few stories, someone will probably bring up the July Heat Wave of 2012. You might get tired of hearing the story, but you aren’t likely to forget living through it. Not content simply to serve up the hottest month ever recorded, Mother Nature also saw fit to dish out storms wicked enough to plunge much of the nation into a week of darkness. Since the power outages lasted through the Fourth of July holiday, many in the media joked that those affected would have to “party like it was 1776.” Which begs the question, how did those first generations of Americans managed to stay cool during oppressive summers in a world without electric fans, let alone modern air conditioning?
As it turns out, those resourceful folks knew more than a few tricks for beating the heat, and they’re worth remembering even today. We are all just one electrical outage from taking a trip back in time to a world where the heat we might normally call merely annoying can become intense, all-pervasive, and even dangerous. In these situations, remember to:
Live and Work in Harmony with Nature
Eighteenth century Americans knew that ultimately they could not control nature, so they simply adjusted their lives to their environment. Since summer afternoons were likely to be blazing hot, heavy work was done during the early morning hours. As the day wore on and temperatures rose, people retreated from hard labor in the sun and returned to it only as evening began to fall. When it was finally too dark to see, the workday was done. It’s a simple strategy, but it’s also a reliable way to work around the heat during those inevitable times when our modern cooling equipment fails us.
The Revolution may have taken place over 230 years ago, but even then, people understood this simple fact: heat rises. Being a rather practical group, early Americans used this knowledge to stay cool by sticking to the lower floors of their dwellings. The same trick still works today. So if the power is out and the temperature is rising, get thee to the first floor.
Control the Sunlight Coming into Your Home
In the Revolutionary Period, people also understood that allowing sunlight to stream through glass was an excellent way to add radiant heat to their environment. During the summer, that was not a particularly exciting prospect. To combat this simple fact of physics, homeowners employed window shutters and draperies to keep the sunlight out. We still do this today, but we are also very likely to throw open our curtains and let glorious daylight fill our homes through oversized windows and sliding glass doors. Just remember that when the grid fails you, it may be time to sacrifice a little natural light for a cooler home.
Vent Your Attic
When early Americans could afford to do so, many opted to build their houses with a copula. More than a purely decorative way for a homeowner to show off his architectural sophistication to neighbors, a cupola would draw heat away from living spaces and out through the highest part of the home. Today, you can accomplish this same effect by venting your attic during a power outage. Instead of fighting the heat, just provide a way for it to escape and set it free. Your family will thank you.
Go Swimming—or Take a Bath
For thousands of years, people have kept cool without electricity by taking the occasional dip. Immersing yourself in a large pool of water can magically whisk away heat from your body—dangerous in colder weather, but an absolute miracle during the summer. The earliest Americans knew this and frequently took to the water. Today, when the power is out and the heat is dangerously high, we do not have to make our way to the banks of the nearest river. In most locations with access to municipal water systems, even in the middle of a blackout, cool water is still running and available to fill your bathtub.
Drink Early and Often
Our forebears understood that taking in lots of fluid was important during the hot weather, and they were not opposed to doing just that. It was common for early Americans—men, women, and children alike—to imbibe liquids of the more alcoholic variety throughout the day. Today, we might recommend water over a tankard of ale, but the principle remains the same. In the heat, it’s important to stay hydrated.
So, there you have it: six lessons early Americans can teach us about staying cool the old-fashioned way. Of course, in the twenty-first century, we have one significant advantage our forebears could never dream of. We can actually use the sun to cool things off. By investing in a solar powered generator, we can create our own electricity and simply plug in a portable fan. Still, these classic tips are great to have in your arsenal of practical knowledge. After all, there’s no telling what Mother Nature has in store for Labor Day.