There had always been a strange mindset when it came to extremes of weather. On the one hand, cold was regarded with deadly seriousness. From the beginning of civilized time, the poorest peasant had tried to keep a fire burning in his hut. Buildings with stoves or central heating, innovations that caught on in the early 19th century, blasted forth hot air without restraint; when Charles Dickens visited the United States, he complained bitterly about the intense, dry heat “whose breath would blight the purest air under Heaven.” Come winter, the average person’s clothing, already heavy, was fortified with an array of still- heavier outer garments. “Draughts” were terrifying things, strongly believed to be carriers of disease, and the slightest threat of “catching a chill” sent most people racing for medical help. An essay of the period illustrated most people’s fears in the bleakness of its title: “Winter an Emblem of Death.” Heat, on the other hand, seemed to be merely a nuisance, something to be ignored — or greeted with giddy humor.
…If people felt that they were shielded from winter’s cold by the amount of clothing they wore, during the summer they might be justified in feeling trapped inside a cocoon of cloth. No matter the temperature, women were tightly corseted, multiply-petticoated, long-sleeved, gloved and hatted. They were allowed no concessions other than lighter colors and fabrics — there was even a category of accessories known as Summer Furs. Men had an equally tough time of it. Winter or broiling summer, no sane man would be seen in public without a “sober” dark wool frock coat, as well as waist coat, hat, and gloves, and no matter how hot the day he was never allowed to remove a stitch of it. Excessive perspiration was seen not as a sign of impending dehydration but as a social gaffe; ruling over all hot-weather activity was the dictum that horses-sweat—men-perspire—ladies-glow. (Gentlemen were taught to use their handkerchiefs without attracting attention. As no one wanted to acknowledge that ladies actually perspired, etiquette dictated that they merely fan themselves, dabbing only when absolutely necessary. A lady who might find herself fading away in public was expected to carry her own smelling salts, most of which were a combination of ammonia-plus-perfume, to jolt herself back from the edge.)
Even in less drastic cases, plenty of medical advice was based on theory and superstition, and carefully following Doctor’s Orders could finish off an overheated person. Woolen and flannel undergarments were strongly recommended for the summertime, and the health profession advised perspiration-drenched people never to remedy the situation by removing any clothing: “internal congestion of the abdominal organs” and other evils might result. It was touted that “the best way to endure heat is to drink as little as possible,” that “overindulgence in liquids” and “a too-free use of cold water” were dangerous practices during hot weather.
— Salvatore Basile, Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything
In these sweltering times, when hellfire slowly singes the earth, there’s nothing like a rousing sermon to fortify the soul and remind us of the promised land awaiting us beyond the autumnal equinox. Blessedly, we have two days of low-70s temperatures to enjoy this weekend, but when we are forced again to walk through the valley of scorching heat and suffocating humidity, we shall fear no evil, for Willis Carrier is with us; his air washer and his centrifugal compressor, they comfort us. Ignore the temptations of Satan and give thanks that such a man ever walked among us.