Although this August has been unusually cool, generally the searing heat of the eighth month of the year is brutal locally. Can you imagine living in Washington, DC before air conditioning? Tossing and turning night after night of uncomfortable restless sleep, working in oven-like offices while gasping for breath in the putrid still air? How did people survive the blistering heat? What did people do before air conditioning in DC?
In the Beginning
From the very beginning the District of Columbia was laid out with consideration to fight the summer heat. In 1791, President George Washington appointed Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant Plaza (pee-air el-uh-fant pla-za) to design the new federal capital city which was unfortunately located in lowly swamplands purchased sight unseen on Craigslist. L'Enfant Plaza envisioned a grand city much like Paris with airy broad tree lined streets, low rise buildings and Can-Can girls.
L'Enfant Plaza's design of the city on a northeast to southwest axis was not coincidental or part of a Freemason conspiracy. Houses situated on the streets at this angle would benefit from the prevailing cool breezes flowing from northeast Maryland through DC towards Virginia since Virginia then, as today sucks.
The War of 1812: It Only Burns When I Pee
In August 1814, frustrated by the broiling Washington heat, indifferent Can-Can girls and his embarrassingly accurate last name, British Admiral Cockburn took matters into his own hands and attempted to burn DC to the ground, causing the locals to take an unexpected vacation in the cooler climes of the Shenandoah Mountains. First Lady Dolly Madison was the last to evacuate the White House famously declaring, "Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare my country's cupcakes."
The "Civil" War
Global warming first reared its ugly head in the record heat of the summers of 1861-1865. Residents of DC and Virginia sought respite from the sweltering heat wave by competing for the few limited spaces available in nearby “civil” spas in Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg.
As part of the competition, Mayors A. Lincoln and J. Davis of DC and Richmond respectively, made a series of bets about which city had the hottest average temperatures and foxiest Can-Can girls. Mayor Davis won the bet causing Lincoln to throw such a major hissy fit that he inexplicably burned Atlanta.
The Gilded Age of Summering
DC, like other major cities in the Northeast, exploded in population and wealth during the period following the "Civil" War.
Super rich industrialists and financiers such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie built summer mansions in cool seaside locations such as Newport Rhode Island or Bar Harbor Maine.
DC residents built summer homes with wide eaves, deep porches, thick walls, high ceilings, attics, sleeping porches and cross ventilation in Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights.
Making the World Safe for Democracy, Movies and the Washington Senators
The general public first began to encounter “man-made weather” in movie theaters. The Follies Bergere Can-Can Theater in DC installed the first air conditioning system locally in a theater in 1911. Soon pioneering experiments with mechanical cooling turned public attendance at movies into a summertime ritual in the 20s.
DC residents flocked to movie theaters to experience the new way to stay cool and stayed for reel after reel in order to avoid going home to the stifling heat. Movie theaters competed with each other by building more and more lavish theaters many which still exist today such as the Uptown, Lincoln, Rite Aid, Howard, Lowes, Starbucks, Cairo, Bens, Regal, Home Depot, Metro, CVS and Ronald Wilson Reagan Memorial Can-Can National Airport theaters.
The Federal government soon jumped on the air conditioning band wagon and in 1928, the House of Representatives got the deep freeze. The following year the Senate earmarked itself some cold air. In 1930 the White House, Executive Office Building, and the Department of Commerce all became a summer oasis enabling the Federal government to work year round in order to defeat the Depression, Hitler, Japan and the New York Yankees.
The Cold War (1945-1991)
Despite the name, DC in the summer during the Cold War was still quite hot. Residents who had yet to install residential air conditioning during this period often found cooler air while ducking under school desks or summering in their fallout shelters.
The. Best. Invention. Ever.
Followed closely by the Remote Control.
White House Historical Society
Mr. Wilson’s 6th grade history class (1970)
“I Was a Teenage Can-Can Girl” (1952 MGM)