How Folks Kept Cool in Old Arizona
By Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s Official Historian. This article was originally published by McCormick Ranch Lifestyle Magazine.
People often ask, “How did you survive the hot summers in the Valley before air conditioning?” Best answer I can think of is we didn’t know what we were missing.
Here are some ways people coped with our heat in the good ole’ days:
The natives cooked their meals outside to avoid heating up the house. Thick-walled adobe homes were constructed in sections separated by breezeways and they planted shade trees around their homes. When lumber was available they built portals around them to shade the walls.
The newcomers quickly learned to dress more comfortably like the native Mexicans and Indians who wore wide-brimmed hats and loose-fitting cotton clothing or wool because it absorbed perspiration.
Wealthy families managed to escape the hot summer months by putting their families on a stagecoach or train and sending them to the California coast or Prescott. Many farmers loaded their families in wagons and went camping in the high country after the harvesting was done.
The poor souls who remained had to find creative ways to stay cool. Ubiquitous irrigation ditches and canals were a good way to beat the heat on hot afternoons.
Some homes and hotels had screened sleeping porches. Many made it through the night by sleeping with wet sheets wrapped around them.
J. C. Adams, the man who built the famous Adams Hotel in downtown Phoenix in 1895, placed huge pans containing blocks of ice with an electric fan blowing over it. He also built a sleeping roof for his guests that included a twelve-foot board wall. The men slept on one side and the women on the other…..presumably.
Ice plants first appeared in Phoenix in 1879, but at ten cents a pound many people couldn’t afford the luxury.
In order to preserve perishable foods families built “desert refrigerators.” These homemade devices operated on the same principle as the evaporative cooler. A wooden frame was covered with burlap that was kept cool by water dripping from an olla or container on top. If a breeze happened to be in an obliging mood it would act as a fan. It worked pretty well keeping milk, meat and butter from spoiling.
The Advent of Air Conditioning
During the 1930s a number of handymen, including Oscar Palmer of Paradise Valley, tinkered with Rube Goldberg machines in an attempt to invent a workable evaporative cooler. They experimented with chicken wire, charcoal, excelsior, wallboard and electric fans. These contraptions were known as “swamp boxes” or “swamp coolers,” because of the mold and fungi that grew inside.
The first room coolers were homemade wooden boxes installed in windows. Charcoal, packed with chicken wire was placed on one side and a hole one-foot in diameter on the other. The box was placed in the window with the hole facing inside the room. Outside, a garden hose slowly dripped water into the charcoal. An electric fan was placed inside the box to draw air through the charcoal.
By 1935, Phoenix had about 1,500 of these window coolers and a year later the number had grown to 5,000. Evaporative coolers emerged on roof tops and windows of homes and buildings across the southern part of the state like wildflowers sprouting in the springtime.
Eventually, excelsior replaced the charcoal. The garden hose was replaced by copper tubing and a blower took over for the fan. By 1937 homes were being built with cooler ducts. Two years later the Goettl Brothers Company was producing evaporative coolers on an assembly line. By the 1950s Phoenix had become known as the “Swamp Cooler Capital of the World,” producing 40% of all the evaporative coolers sold in the world.
This article was originally published by McCormick Ranch Lifestyle Magazine.
I would like to point out the work my great grandfather did on this subject. His name was Martin Thornburg, and he was a professor of engineering at the U of A. In the early 1930’s he published plans for a homemade swamp cooler that could be made for $10 using an electric fan and a garden hose. Mimeographed copies spread all over the state. He and his brother published a small book called ‘Cooling for the Arizona Home’ in 1939. It can be found today on the U of A website at https://repository.arizona.edu/handle/10150/312156 .