Lookin’ Back at the Sizzling 40s in the South
For those of us who were born and raised in Savannah, we know about down South weather in the summertime.
Not Las Vegas kind of hot, heat that deceives, sifting over desert sands leaching out moisture, leaving you wondering why your nostrils are dry, dripping blood as you lay back in a poolside chair relaxing in late afternoon calm. No, our Savannah heat slams against the body, being everything humidity epitomizes, wet heat of a steam room, leaving the feeling there’s a pillowcase damp and warm over your head, smothering your lungs, slowing your walk, your speech, your thoughts. Wonderful Southern summertime air.
No matter where we live now, with icy air conditioning available at the push of a thermostat button, we remember those hot, hot days and the ways we managed to stay cool.
Before air conditioning, how did we exist? Did we eat differently? Drink more? How did we dress? How in the world did we manage?
Not that we didn’t know about that marvelous invention, air conditioning. By the early 1940s, movie theaters had installed central cooling, and that was as good an excuse as any to become a theater buff.
But, you can stay in the theaters only so long.
We coped. That’s all you could do.
In the summer months, many stores closed for lunch between the hours of one and three, except for the first Saturday of the month; some shop doors were locked on Wednesdays and Saturdays at one o’clock. We were used to it. No one went bankrupt. Traffic was crazy heavy going to Tybee Beach eighteen miles to the East. There were cabins for rent on the river at Pine Harbor and Yellow Bluff south of Savannah. And there was Bluffton, beautiful Bluffton on the bay, across the river in South Carolina. Going to the mountains where the air was crisp and cool in the evenings was the thing to do. If you didn’t get out of the city, you were thankful that buildings were of wood or solid brick or concrete block, not plywood covered in paper. Rooms had high ceilings, transoms over doors allowed air to circulate from one room to another. Privacy was protected. Architects used every trick possible to provide a natural cool. A favorite room was the sun parlor with multiple windows. Screened porches were a blessing. Cross ventilation was a builder’s mantra, Southern exposure a luxury.
Pre-air conditioning days of the late 1940’s found us recovering from WWII and being initiated into the Cold War, Berlin Blockade. Couture designer Christian Dior led us from short skirts to the New Look with dress lengths hitting the ankle. Men’s summertime suits were of Palm Beach or seersucker cloth. The younger generation wore cotton short sleeve shirts or tees, all fabrics that breathed.
In spite of the added material, we ironed the full skirts and wore them over petticoats starched so stiffly; they could stand alone. Teenage girls wore the new short shorts but never ‘downtown.’ The fairer sex discovered Revlon’s Aquamarine lotion which had a refreshing scent, certainly better than the pasty white Noxzema cream that we smeared on our noses to keep them from getting burned at the beach. Our shopping was on Broughton Street, Adler’s Department Store, Levy’s, Al Chaskin’s, Hogan’s, Belk Parrot and we rode the city bus to get there, sitting on the aisle so air from the bus’s open windows wouldn’t mess up our hair. As much as we could, we walked on the south side of the street, the shady side.
There were drug stores which offered fountain cokes for .05 cents and a tuna fish or egg salad or chicken salad or shrimp salad sandwich for 15 cents.
Fans were everywhere, large black metal fans on sturdy stands five feet tall, grey utility fans that rotated from side to side and were hung strategically on hospital and office walls, fans shaped like ottomans that could sit in the middle of a living room and spew air in all directions, box fans to sit in the corner, ugly but functional. The hum and peculiar clicking of fans were a part of summertime. Some homeowners used attic fans that were turned on when the sun went down and sucked cooler night air through the house.
We carried portable fans in our purses, folding fans from Japan, hand painted silk that could become a nervous habit, flip open, flip shut, carved ivory fans, easily breakable, sometimes yellowed with age, and the inevitable cardboard fan in church with Jesus kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane on one side and the funeral home advertisement on the other. It is true that there was little respite from summertime heat in the days before air conditioning and to this day I tend to think of its inventor with gladness in my heart. We knew no differently. That was what summer weather was. We adapted, enjoyed those summer days when finding somewhere cool was a natural reaction, not an accomplishment of note. But somehow, in the process of insulating ourselves in the cocoon of air conditioning comfort, we have lost connection with our neighbors and with the sounds of nature, wind rustling palmetto branches, owls and whippoorwills in the night, blue jays and cardinals competing with mockingbirds, dogs barking at strange noises and smells. Children were riding by on bicycles. Amazing that there is no barrier to the roar of the leaf blower, jet ski or air boat.
Would I give up my air conditioning? Never. However, after all these years, I might not have a fan in my purse, but I still walk slow, move slow, talk slow.