How Air Conditioning Changed America

Transforming cities into a nation

Growing up in New York City in the 1950’s and 60’s, you could walk down the street on a hot summer day and see children everywhere and parents doing everything they could to stay cool. In the afternoons kids’ faces filled with sheer happiness when a fire hydrant blew and sprayed water throughout the street, they rode their bikes and rollerskates through the streets with their buddies, and the coolest kids dominated the house stoops they lived on. These were some of the funnest years in a kids life.

It is safe to say that things are not the same as they were back then. Aside from the fact that children are no longer free to roam the streets, the invention of the air conditioner changed everything. In that time fewer than 14 percent of households in urban America had air conditioning; today it’s over 87 percent. The National Academy of Engineering even ranked air conditioning the tenth-most important achievement of the 20th century.

Architecture Changed

The buildings and structures were no longer elegant, open and airy and E, H and U shaped buildings, but they became the architecture we are familiar with today. More theaters and malls were created and the architecture of them was very different than people were used to. Windows and walls were permanently sealed and shut in. These closed in, air conditioned places became the only places people really wanted to hang out in.

The Rise of Television

Air conditioning and television combined turned America from being more city oriented to more nationally universal. For example, regional accents became less distinct and the terminology and pronunciation of words became universal. More people were having similar experiences to each other because the were all inside watching the same television channels and the listening to the same radio stations. Everyone spent far less time outdoors in the blistering sun and more time indoors where the air was cool and technology entertained them. Americans became a lot less regionally diverse.

Only Air Conditioned Businesses Succeeded

As time went on, air conditioners became popular which gave rise to big businesses really getting ahead; Mom-and-pop stores started to see some problems. When air conditioners started being used they costed a small fortune. Smaller, non-chain companies had a much harder time affording the A/C’s and it was detrimental to them. People began spending less time in these small, hot stores and wanted to eat and shop where they could do so more comfortably.

Baseball Was No Longer the Biggest Thing Around

Major League baseball in the 50’s was perhaps one of the most popular things people could attend. With the rise of Babe Ruth, people had an athletic idol to look up to. When air conditioning came around people were far less interested in being outdoors and far more interested in the silver screen. Movie theaters, Hollywood, and the lives of the rich and famous became American’s new focus. In 1960, baseball’s attendance reached a peak it would not exceed again until the 1980’s when America’s population was much higher.

Heat Waves Were No Longer Responsible for So Many Deaths

The way of American life changed so much after air conditioners became readily available that it was even said by a famous writer of the time that it caused “the ultimate divorce between man and nature.” But the invention of the air conditioner obviously isn’t such a negative thing, although it may have seemed that way at the time because it changed things so rapidly. Americans actually began to get a lot more work done because the heat of the day no longer slowed them down. The invention of the air conditioner actually saved lives.

In the past, the waves of heat that would hit the city could easily turn deadly. Even recently in Europe, where A/C is far less common, the 2003 heat wave killed more than 70,000 (mostly elderly) people. Back in the 50’s and 60’s people would literally hang out on their fire escape or in the grass fields underneath trees. Many people would even going so far as to put their chairs or mattresses out on the fire escape so they could be cooler than lying down inside. Homes would trap in heat so people would often take naps outside on their lawns, laying next to their alarm clocks so they didn’t sleep for too long; anything to get away from the heat.

Today almost 90% of homes in America have some form of air conditioner. People born today have a hard time understanding what life could even be like without it. Especially here in Florida, if A/C’s weren’t around it would be safe to say the population would be a mere fraction of what it is today. So while the air conditioner did bring rise to a more technological way of life with less real social understanding, air conditioners should not be taken for granted for they have drastically improved our indoor comfort.

How the Air Conditioner Made Modern America – The Atlantic

How air conditioning changed America forever – Vox

How air conditioning changed the world – BBC News