"It is very much as one looks at it whether one is to suffer or enjoy most during the summer. Fretting and fidgeting and violent fanning adds to one’s discomfort.” Orleans County Monitor July 15, 1895.
Warmer summers are here to stay. There have been past periods of extreme heat in Northern New England. The summers of 1911, 1936, and 2021 are examples of summers that had a series of heat waves, with the latter being one of the hottest summers on record. For some, this summer will even surpass that one.
These are the days we sometimes look back to last winter for cooler temperature. This column explores how people kept cool in the years before air conditioning made sizzling summer work, dining, or sleeping more comfortable. It includes some time-honored methods still used by area residents, and some that have passed away with time and inventions.
A few previous columns included ways in which area residents and visitors have dealt with hot summer temperatures. The following are brief excerpts from those articles. The full articles can be found at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.
For over 200 years, area residents have hosted summer visitors at commercial and private facilities. In Aug 1871, Orford’s Hale’s Hotel hosted “a large number of city boarders who have come to stop through the hot weather.” Hostels and private cabins offered residents and tourists opportunities to enjoy local lakes.
Mountain locations were especially appealing to summer tourists. The Breezy Point House at Mt. Moosilauke hosted wealthy summer guests who traded the stifle of the city for the fresh air of the mountains. The full article can be found at “Summer Tourist Trade.”
Summer residential youth camps have flourished in the Upper Valley from early in the 20th century. Those who established camps such as Farwell on Hall’s Pond, Aloha on Lake Morey, and Moosilauke on Upper Baker Pond were pioneers in the youth camp movement.
Annually, trains brought urban youth to enjoy the refreshing lake-side environments. Hiking, swimming, and canoeing were among the many camp activities. These camps had the added benefit of freeing parents of their children during the long summer vacations. The full article is entitled “Going to Summer Camp.”
Swimming and other outdoor recreations helped folks deal with the summer heat. Hall’s Pond, Baldwin Bridge, Flat Rock, Ticklenaked Pond, and Lake Morey were among the swimming locations that called young and old alike for a refreshing dip.
Just as tourists sought cool mountain locations, locals enjoyed hiking for day walks, picnics, or camping. Bicycling, canoeing as well as lawn games brought residents out of doors in the summer. This third excerpt can be found on the blog at “Late Summer Fun.”
In times past, spring houses were one method used by area rural residents to kept perishable farm products and household foods from spoiling. Built over running water or a spring, this small structure allowed items to be kept in the cold water or on shelves. Spring houses were especially important for the safe storage of butter, milk, and other heat-sensitive foodstuffs.
Before air conditioning and electric refrigeration, ice harvesting utilized winter’s cold to combat summer’s heat. The area’s many lakes and rivers provided a harvest of ice that was stored in private or professional insulated ice houses. It was winter’s cash crop.
Ice cutters used huge blades to cut ice that was at least 18” thick. The work was hard and often dangerous. Horses, and later tractors, were used to haul the heavy loads of ice away.
Area newspapers described this annual activity. In January 1883, 20 men hauled ice for the Bradford Ice Company. Five hundred tons of ice were stored in one company’s ice houses in Woodsville and Wells River in 1885. According to the Adirondack Almanack, some 5,000 men cut ice on Lake Champlain in 1890.
In 1896, Orford’s ice houses were filled with ice of “large quantities and of most excellent quality” from Lake Morey. In Feb 1911, Newbury men filled the creamery ice house with 100 tons of ice in just two days.
A late fall, an open winter, or an extremely hot summer often led to a shortage of ice. In those cases, dealers had to purchase ice from neighboring towns with surpluses or import it from colder states or Canada.
In 1874, the Vermont Central Railroad began to use ice-cooled refrigerated cars. This increased significantly the shipment of perishable area products, such as butter, milk, and strawberries to markets. Theatres, stores, restaurants, and factories used fans blowing over large quantities of ice to provide “air conditioning” or “comfort cooling.”
This naturally harvested ice was popular into the early 20th century. Artificial ice had been manufactured in the southern United States for some time and began to replace harvested ice. The first commercial ice-maker was patented in 1873, but it was not until the 1930s that edible ice was manufactured.
Early in the 19th century, household “refrigerator” iceboxes became available. Blocks of ice were home delivered and placed in these insulated appliances. Home owners told the iceman their needs by placing a sign in the window. He would chip off the desired amount and, using tongs, swing the block over his rubber-covered shoulder for delivery.
My Brattleboro grandmother still had an icebox as late as 1948. I recall the iceman treating the neighborhood children to slivers of ice.
In the 1930s, the price of electric refrigerators was reduced, and more homes installed them. In the 1940s, as frozen foods became popular, separate freezer compartments were added. Chest freezers followed in popularity. All these appliances kept food safer for longer periods of time.
Mechanized air conditioning began to be used for cooling buildings and railroad cars in the 1930s. In May 1938, the new Chimes Restaurant on Bradford Main Street touted its air-conditioned atmosphere. In 1948, Bradford’s Colonial Theatre was renovated, and air-conditioning was added.
In 1947, advertisements for Carrier Room Air-conditioners offered the chance to “dodge the dog days and keep cucumber-cool this summer.”
Before, and even after, air conditioning, houses were often designed to reduce the impact of summer heat. Some were built with wide eaves to avoid the sun’s direct rays. Higher ceilings allowed warmer air to rise over head.
Verandas, farm porches, or second-story enclosed balconies offered shade for a mid-day nap or an evening of rocking. They also prevented the sun’s heat from entering the house. Some verandas were large enough for a swing or to serve as a sleeping porch for those who had no mistrust of night air. Screens gave protection from insects. Shade trees and climbing vines offered added protection
Windows were often placed to offer cross-ventilation and outfitted with shades or shutters. With no air conditioning, residents kept the house shuttered during the day and open during the evenings. Some larger homes offered summer kitchens to prevent the heat from cooking invading the rest of the house.
Electric fans for both household and commercial use became popular around 1900. Earlier fans had been powered by alcohol, oil, or kerosene. Fans were available in both tabletop and ceiling models. Westinghouse and General Electric battled for the fan market. Stores mentioned electric fans in the advertisements and drew more customers during hot weather.
Newspapers and magazines regularly carried menu suggestions for summer meals. Lighter foods were recommended. Many recipes used available fresh garden fruits and vegetables.
Lawn picnics and afternoon naps required just a blanket. Modern picnic tables began to appear in the early 1900s. Vermont newspapers began to refer to the joys of backyard barbecues after 1940. One Vermont observer made light of the tendency of newcomers and tourists to eat out of doors.
A cool beverage helps the body deal with the impacts of high temperatures. Just plain water or “Adam’s ale” was readily available and free.
“Switchel,” a 1921 United Opinion article proclaimed, “is the homebrew of the Gods, unexcelled as a thirst quencher.” There are various recipes, including one made with oatmeal. My Mom made it from water, sugar, ginger, and vinegar for use in the ha fields.
Commercially-made carbonated beverages began to appear on the market in the second half of the 19th century . Those included Hires Root Beer (1876), Dr. Pepper (1885), Coca-Cola (1888), Pepsi (1898), and Canada Dry Ginger Ale (1907). Others turned to the time-honored relief found in alcoholic beverages.
Beginning in the early 19th century, tea punches were popular. Iced tea was introduced after 1900 and was added to an assortment of fruit drinks.
Since the early 1800s, Ice cream has been a way to cool off in summer’s heat. It was referred to as a “dessert that made life endurable…” Using ice and rock salt, hand cranks turned cream and sugar into homemade ice cream. Later, commercially manufactured ice cream became an industry.
In the 1870s, soda fountains began to appear, and ice cream sodas were introduced. Some religious groups thought it sinful to eat ice cream sodas on Sundays. In the 1890s, some entrepreneurs left out the carbonated water in the soda, and sold them as ice cream sundaes. It was said that they were initially referred to as “Sundays.”
Locally, many pharmacies maintained a soda fountain. When I was a child, one could find soda fountains at Clifford’s Corner Store in Orford, Chapman’s in Fairlee, and Gove & Bancroft Pharmacy and Chimes’s Restaurant in Bradford. Similar ones were found in Wells River and Woodsville. In 1948, the soda fountain at Woodsville’s Kelley’s Cash Store offered a student special ice cream floats for a dime.
The ice cream cone was introduced at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Ice cream had been licked in hand-held containers for some time, but this was the first time the container was eaten.
As early as 1912, there was an ice cream parlor on Main Street in Fairlee. Known as the Neapolitan, it used Bradford strawberries in its strawberry ice cream. It was bought out by Hood’s Creamery in 1936.
In 1926, Charles Taylor of Buffalo invented an automatic soft serve ice cream machine. In the early 1950s, Taylor machines began to appear in the area, offering an alternative to hard ice cream. It was initially called frozen-custard in New Hampshire and cree-mees in Vermont. The popsicle, invented by accident in 1905, became popular in the 1920s.
Those who could afford it gave up heavier clothes for lighter summer ones. “Dress lightly, eat little, but often. Relax. Don’t get too much sun at one time. That is the way to keep cool. Cliff Lang, Bradford’s United Opinion, July 31, 1942.
Linen and cotton fabrics were recommended as were loose-fitting garments. Ladies had wide-brimmed hats and parasols to avoid the sun. These seasonal outfits were most popular and available among affluent residents and guests.
Wearing white outfits was considered most appropriate summer attire until Labor Day. They indicated that the wearer was not involved in dirty manual labor. The same seasonal rule applied to men’s hats, with boaters or straw hats replacing heavier cloth ones.
Earlier attitudes regarding modesty dictated the amount of skin the wearer could show. Earlier swimwear was less revealing. In the latter part of the 19th century, women’s swim outfits consisted of long dresses or bathing gowns. Men wore wool shorts and tops, and only in the 1930s did men start to go topless.
Most men resisted short pants. In the early 1950s, Bermuda shorts were introduced, with tourists the first local wearers. In June 1956, Bradford’s Erskine’s clothing store was the first to advertise them.
In the past, the poor suffered most from the heat of summer. Having a summer tan was the sign of a laborer. The poor could not afford a summer wardrobe, a trip to a resort in the mountains, the beach, or a residence with cooling features.
As the earth warms, and extreme periods of summer heat become more frequent, it will again be the poorest that suffer the most, both at home and abroad. And that’s cold.