How window air conditioners ushered in the Ice Age

I’m of the last generation that grew up without air conditioning as a standard feature in most homes. We got air conditioning eventually, but only after Mom and Dad were sure we’d endured enough blistering summers to remember what suffering was like. Parents back then were concerned their children might turn out spoiled, so they let kids do things like sweat in the heat.

We had a fan. It was a three-speed oscillating number with no safety guard, the kind that could cut your fingers off if you stuck your hand it. We were reminded of the danger every 15 minutes. The fan followed us from room to room. When we had dinner, the fan had dinner. When we sat in the living room, the fan sat in the living room.


Everybody we knew had fans. Come to think of it, I’m not sure air conditioning had been invented when I was a kid. The wheel had been invented, but not air conditioners.

Of course, we found other ways to stay cool. If you sprawled out face down on the basement floor, it could bring your body temperature down to 117.

We also kept the drapes in front of the big picture window that faced west drawn during the summer. Exxon could have started drilling for oil in our backyard and we wouldn’t have known until late September.

I was mesmerized by an aunt and uncle who lived on a farm and had a big window fan. It would pull in the cool night air and, sometimes, the smell of cattle as well. When it was really hot, my aunt would put a tray of ice cubes in front of the fan, so the fan would (theoretically) blow cold air. My aunt later became the president of Frigidaire. Not really, but I thought she was a genius.

Then the day finally came when Mom and Dad apparently thought we had suffered enough and they bought a window air conditioner. Dad hauled the monster home in the trunk of the car and had to get a neighbor to help heave it into the kitchen window.

Could that baby cool. The bedrooms were at the back of the house, so they had to blast it on high at night to cool everyone while we slept. It was great. The only downside was that the first ones in the kitchen for breakfast suffered frostbite. Every morning, when we’d be at the kitchen table chopping through the milk frozen around our cereal, Dad would say, “Boy, this air conditioning is a lifesaver.” It really was. We were officially spoiled.

Temperatures are soaring again today, as they promise to do for the next few weeks. I’ve grown spoiled just as my parents feared; I routinely grouse about the heat and humidity with all the rest. But there’s not a day I don’t look at the thermostat on our central air conditioning and hear my father’s voice say, “Boy, this air conditioning is a lifesaver.”

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