Back PageSeptember 2002: Vol. 81, No. 4

The air conditioning of the South

Mr. Carrier's cooling machine stopped out-migration and helped create the Sunbelt

By Jim Cobb (AB '69, MA '72, PhD '75)
Illustration by Jason Crosby

The recent observance of the 100th anniversary of the introduction of air-conditioning (which didn't show up in most southern homes until the 1950s) got me to thinking about the ways in which this technological breakthrough has revolutionized southern life. Save for the cotton gin, I don't see anything man-made having a greater impact than Mr. Carrier's marvelous cooling machine.

TIn the pre-A/C South, our living arrangements bore the imprint of our humid subtropical climate in a multitude of ways. We set our high-ceilinged houses up on pillars so that hot air would rise above us while we kept cool air beneath us. Shade trees and wraparound porches were our primary refuges when the heat inside became unbearable or when friends and kin dropped by after fleeing their own overheated homes.

With the advent of residential air-conditioning, however, we soon realized that on the hottest days, high ceilings simply gave even the pluckiest compressor too much space to cool. Likewise, because we were going to be inside most of the time during hot weather, we didn't need much of a porch anymore. Finally, to save heat in the wintertime and look a little more sophisticated in the bargain, we began to underpin our homes, thoughtlessly evicting the dogs from their favorite sleeping spot in the process.

Suddenly, it seemed, Southerners were "indoor" rather than "outdoor" people. Folks quit visiting so much after everybody got air-conditioning, and let's face it, the comfort level on the shadiest porch hardly compared to the icy, near-numbness that our hardworking window unit could induce. Better still, inside we could watch television, which had also made its debut in most southern homes during the 1950s. Ironically, by moving inside to cool down and tune in, we had increased our contact with the outside world at the expense of our contact with each other.

As air-conditioning was reshaping the way we lived, it was also helping to change the way we made our living. Without it, most of our bigger, heavier, and more complex industries would surely have never headed South after World War II, nor would many of the people who worked in and managed them, or the retirees who jumped at the chance to luxuriate in air-conditioned comfort while telling us how they used to do it in Ohio. Overall, the air-conditioner was crucial to reversing the South's historic pattern of out-migration and to the explosive growth of the "Sunbelt" in the 1970s. How else could Houston, whose annual cooling bill dwarfs many a Third World GNP, become the nation's fourth-largest city? For that matter, imagine the huge glob of glass, steel, and asphalt that we now know and love-hate as Atlanta reduced to a truly Hot-lanta, stripped of it's A/C-derived faux climate and rudely reminded that it really is in Georgia?

For good or ill, air-conditioning has changed our lives by coming between us and our natural environment. As an old Baptist who can never be completely comfortable with being completely comfortable, I keep recalling a margarine commercial that warned us about trying to fool Mother Nature. On the other hand, I am not the least bit sentimental about my un-air-conditioned Georgia childhood, especially my nocturnal summertime tossing and turning at the foot of the bed, praying to catch a breeze through the nearby window before the rooster started sounding off. Suffice it to say, if cranking up the A/C constitutes an unnatural act, put me down as a habitual and unrepentant offender.

Jim Cobb (AB '69, MA '72, PhD '75) is the B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor of History.

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