Last week, temperatures in New York City peaked in the mid 90s but with the humidity index, afternoon to early evening temperatures felt more like 105 to 113 degrees. The combined temperature and humidity index prompted an “excessive heat warning” for the city and sent most residents indoors to take refuge in air conditioned homes and workplaces. For those less fortunate, the city opened designated cooling centers. Under such dire conditions, it’s natural to wonder, what was summer like before the invention of air conditioning?
As anyone who has lived through a New York City heatwave might imagine, life in the city prior to the widespread availability of air conditioning ranged from highly uncomfortable to deadly. Until air conditioning became widely accessible in the 1960s, summers were often marked by high death tolls as people crammed into tenements in high-density neighborhoods, like the Lower East Side, succumbed to the heat.
On July 4, 1872, the New York Times reported that 100 city residents had died from heat exposure in the previous 48 hours, but the article also noted that in many cities, such as Calcutta where temperatures often soar above 90, residents still manage to cope. The article suggested that the high death toll may be more directly linked to New Yorkers’ love of “spirituous drinks,” which also tend to be consumed in much higher quantities during heatwaves.