Monday, May 9, 2011

Want: Air Conditioning

Hungry for summer, blogger-at-large LAW reports:

Here in the North Woods, no sooner do we stop throwing logs into the woodstove than we start looking for ways to get cool. That’s how abruptly winter turns into summer in these parts. Of course, air conditioning was not even a dream in Youman’s day; it had to wait for the innovative genius of Willis Carrier, who was born just four years after the publication of the Dictionary of Every-Day Wants. We can imagine the young inventor spending hours poring over his family’s well-worn copy, and perhaps his invention owed something to memories of Youman’s practical approach to problem solving.

Sweltering in un-air-conditioned homes, Youman’s readers had only to turn to his entry on “HOUSES, To Keep Cool in Hot Weather,” with its reassuring statement that “in very hot days a cool apartment is a real luxury to be had far oftener than most people suppose possible.” The secret was one of utmost simplicity: don’t just bring in the cool air, but keep out the hot. “If the air outside a room or house be cooler than the air inside, let it in by all means; but if it be hotter, carefully keep it out….The mistake people generally make is to throw open their windows at all hours of the day, no matter whether the atmosphere outside be cool or scorching.”

“Let in cool air—keep out hot—that is the only formula to insure the minimum of discomfort.”

If their home still felt too warm, folks might turn to a cold drink for refreshment. But wait—don’t go gulping that ice water! First read Youman’s entry “DRINKING IN SUMMER,” which strongly recommends sipping, not gulping. “The sudden deaths while drinking frequently recorded in summer, are due to paralysis of the stomach, produced by drenching it suddenly with iced water.” Interestingly, in contrast to today’s belief that drinking more fluids is generally better for one’s health, Youman notes that “by sipping…less water is needed; for in all seasons the quantity taken is an important matter, nearly as important as the temperature.”

How did people manage to serve iced drinks in the summer, in the pre-refrigeration era? Here Youman moves into full self-help mode, with a series of entries on “ICE CHEST, To Make”; “ICE, To Gather”; and “ICE-HOUSE, To Build.”

On the ice house, Youman notes reassuringly that “a family ice-house need not be an expensive structure.” A building 12 feet square and 8 or 9 feet high “is sufficient for the wants of the most exacting family.” It could be built by two workmen in just one or two days—no special carpentry skills needed. In addition to giving detailed instructions for its construction (frame), insulation (sawdust), drainage (floor drain), and ventilation (in the roof, “the top [of the ventilator] defended from the rain or snow”), Youman tells exactly how to pack the ice—which, of course, you will have gathered back in December, on a clear cold day, and using proper ice tools (cross-cut saw, axe, pike pole, and an ice ladder), as “the first ice keeps best, and is easier procured.” To fill your ice house, you’d need 12 cakes, each 2 by 3 feet, to make each layer. This number, “laid up eight or nine feet high, is sufficient to last a large family.” (For the mathematically challenged, I’ll note that this is equivalent to about 11,664 modern-day ice-cube trays, or about 41,472 pounds of ice.)

How hard would it be to fill the ice house, and how long would it take? Youman quotes “another writer,” who said that “four men with one team, cut, hauled and packed the ice, and filled in the sawdust in less than two days, notwithstanding we had to haul the ice one-half mile.” And that’s another advantage of northern New England: ponds and lakes are everywhere, so it’s unlikely you would have had to haul your ice any farther than that one-half mile!

Done properly, your ice house would keep ice frozen all year round. It could even be an attraction to your property: “Plant morning glories or any climbing plant around the building and induce them to creep up the walls and over the roof as an additional defense against the fervid sun of summer,” Youman advises. Ever pragmatic, he goes on to note its additional advantages, as “a useful adjunct to the farm, its contents being invaluable in sickness…[and] convenient as a refrigerator on a large scale, preserving food of various kinds and the products of a dairy.” In the words of one satisfied ice-house DIYer: “We have used [our ice] freely through the season, sold to pic-nic parties, given away to sick neighbors, and have plenty of ice yet.”