Keeping Your Cool, by Elaine Owen

Keeping Your Cool, by Elaine Owen

Keeping Your Cool

Today, as I write, the temperature here in the northeastern U.S. is predicted to rise to the mid 90’s (35 degrees Celsius), and my house has no air conditioning. It died over the weekend, in the middle of our most recent heat wave. So while I sit here melting in front of my laptop, waiting anxiously for the repairman, I am researching how Lizzie Bennet and our other Regency heroines (and heroes) kept their cool in an era before air conditioning.

Fortunately, women of the Regency era did not wear the layers of clothing and heavy petticoats which would become the style during the Victorian era. Their simple style of dress made it comparatively easy for them to stay comfortable. Elizabeth would have been just fine touring Pemberley in this outfit, wouldn’t she? Even after seeing Darcy in a wet shirt.

And England in general has a more temperate climate than large parts of the United States. But still, sometimes heat was an issue. We catch glimpses of it in Pride and Prejudice.

In chapter 45, we are told that when Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner called at Pemberley they were shown, “into the saloon, whose northern aspect rendered it delightful for summer. Its windows opening to the ground, admitted a most refreshing view of the high woody hills behind the house, and of the beautiful oaks and Spanish chestnuts which were scattered over the intermediate lawn.” Here in one passage are three techniques that Elizabeth and her contemporaries commonly used for managing the heat.

First, when designing buildings, they deliberately planned rooms with windows away from the direct rays of the sun. Lady Catherine makes a reference to this in her memorable visit to Longbourn later in the story, when she criticizes the room where she is welcomed by Mrs. Bennet:

“ ‘This must be a most inconvenient sitting room for the evening, in summer; the windows are full west.’ Mrs. Bennet assured her that they never sat there after dinner . . . “

Changing the direction of windows was one simple technique used then and still used commonly today.

Secondly, they understood that heat rises. It was a simple matter to stay on the first floor of the house when the heat of the second or third stories became uncomfortable, and this is another technique used around the world. My family and I will be retreating to the basement early this afternoon unless the repairman gets here first. (God bless the air conditioning man!)

Lastly, they used landscaping. The oaks and Spanish chestnuts on the lawn at Pemberley were not there just for show. They played an important part in shading the house from the sun and keeping the temperature down. Again, this is a technique still used today, although in today’s urban planning we have moved past planting vegetation around buildings and sometimes plant vegetation directly on them.

Elizabeth and her aunt would be impressed.

Pemberley may also have had an ice house, a brick structure where ice would be laid in during cold months and could stay insulated during the summer. The ice would be used to preserve food and to make iced drinks or even ice cream. There are even some reports that in especially warm weather, gentlemen and ladies wore undergarments that had been thoroughly chilled in an ice house first.

“You left mine in the ice-house entirely too long, sister.”

And, of course, Elizabeth and others used parasols and hand held fans. Fans had the advantages of being inexpensive, portable, and useful for communicating hidden messages.

You can read a short description of the types of fans and their uses here.

No techniques before the advent of electricity, however, could possibly equal the sheer effectiveness of modern air conditioning, which did not become widely available until early in the 20th century. I consider it one of the great developments of the modern age, along with improved women’s rights, faster transportation, and the easy availability of chocolate.

This is not what chocolate is supposed to look like at room temperature.



And now if you’ll excuse me, I will close this post on staying cool in Regency times. If you need me I’ll be putting another load of laundry in the freezer.

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Sheila Majczan
Sheila Majczan
July 28, 2016 10:56 PM

We lost our A/C about 5 years ago during a heat wave here in Pennsylvania and the repairman couldn’t come for about 3 days so we rented a hotel room for two nights, especially since our daughter-in-law was staying with us while she finished some extra credits towards her Special Ed. Teaching degree. I grew up with no A/C and remember how clammy the bed sheets felt – sharing a double bed with my sister, too, didn’t help.

Sheila Majczan
Sheila Majczan
July 30, 2016 10:14 PM
Reply to  Elaine Owen

OK Elaine if you are that close we have to arrange something. I have been to Delaware to various DuPont museums exhibits and then way back to shows at 3 Little Bakers. Downton Abbey costumes was my last foray there. Can we connect through messages on Goodreads? Going to see about that.

Debbie Fortin
July 26, 2016 5:14 AM

Thank you for this post. I used to love being at my grandparent’s house in the summer. They had no AC, but the house was surrounded by trees which kept it somewhat cool and with the windows open there was some breeze. It was much cooler than my home in the sun with few trees. That was stifling. The trees definitely would make a difference. Nice to see you here.

July 24, 2016 12:36 PM

106 yesterday. This is typical for July/August months. If a/c went out I would find myself shopping at the mall or going to theater to stay cool. Not so easy in Austen’s time!

July 25, 2016 11:19 PM
Reply to  Elaine Owen

Chico- Northern California. It should be illegal! We get the occasional 110. I am 4 hours from the coast. Those temps definitely drive me coastal!

Diana J Oaks
July 24, 2016 12:42 AM

I am fortunate – my son is a top notch HVAC technician and he keeps his mama’s AC in prime condition in the summer and furnace in the winter too. I’m pampered now, but we didn’t install central air in this house until about 10 years ago. We own a south facing brick house that had no trees out front when we moved in. The east side of the house however, is very shaded, so we installed some double-barreled window fans on the east side that pulled in the cool air and the same types of fans reversed on the west side that pulled out the warm air. Eventually we graduated to one large window AC unit in the living room and set up fans around the house to distribute the cooled air. I’m grateful for the central air we have now. Our house is an old one, and the bricks are two layers thick. In the summer, they are still radiating heat into the house at 2 o’clock in the morning! While my kids were growing up, we did a lot of water play in the yard and they consumed way too many Popsicles and Otter Pops.

As I understand it, water was used to stay cool during the Regency too. People of all classes would congregate along the riverbanks and the kids would splash and play, the ladies would dip their feet into the water. The famous scene where Darcy takes a dip in the pond was historically accurate. Of course the women and children used a different location than the men. I have heard it said that the water features on the grounds of many great country homes were also used as a means of lowering the temperature in the vicinity. It seems logical to me. Great topic!

Sophie Turner
July 23, 2016 5:35 PM

Great post, Elaine! Spruce beer also helped Frank Churchill cool down, in Emma, but I am guessing you probably don’t have any of that on hand! Hope your A/C is fixed quickly.

Jennifer Redlarczyk
Jennifer Redlarczyk
July 23, 2016 11:32 AM

Elaine, we are just as hot in Indiana and my DH keeps saying “I hate summer.” And then I say but we have AC and not 20 inches of snow to shovel. Thanks for your post. Jen Red ?

July 23, 2016 10:18 AM

Living in Texas with the heat and humidity is unbearable without A/C. Thank you for this interesting post.

July 23, 2016 9:12 AM

Thanks for this article. It reminded me to close the curtains here right next to me! 🙂

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
July 23, 2016 8:38 AM

Like the others, KY has not been exempt from the heat wave. Our heat index was 102 & 103 [degrees F] for several days. We don’t have it as bad as the southwest, but for us, the combination of the humidity and the heat pushes hard against the tolerance levels. I think all of us have endured a broken A/C at one time or another. It always hits during the hottest time.

My 90-year-old father likes to talk about how they beat the heat when he was a child during the 20s and 30s. He and the other children would sleep outside on a screened in porch in order to keep cool. Most of the heat records the weather man compares our heat to are from those decades.

My great-grand-mother loved to tell the story of their putting the bedding outside and sleeping under a tree. One night she gave someone a fright as she seemingly rose from the ground wearing her white, long-sleeved, night gown. I don’t think that person was ever quite the same after that. Nor did they roam about during the night.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
July 25, 2016 2:56 PM
Reply to  Elaine Owen

I just knew someone would see it as a scene for a story…take it, use it, with my blessing. HA!!!

Sally Cline
Sally Cline
July 22, 2016 10:56 PM

I have wondered how the people, especially the men could take the heat with their coats vests and a cravat wrapped around their neck. It sometimes makes me feel hot just reading about it! The dress you pictured is beautiful and looks to be cool and comfortable. I live in Texas and the temperature is 100 everyday so far. I do not see how people lived here without air conditioning.

July 22, 2016 5:17 PM

I don’t know what people in the Regency did, but I expect it’s much the same as what my family has always done.
I have never lived in a house with air conditioning. As a child in Wisconsin, we kept the curtains and windows open during the night and closed during the day in hot weather (my husband still does this), spent a lot of time in the lake, and kept our nightgowns in the freezer to help us be cool enough to sleep. There was a fan in the attic used to suck hot air out of the house in the evening, that then reversed direction to pull cool air into the house at night.
My MIL in New Jersey would wrap ice cubes around a cloth and wear that around her neck while the melting ice trickled down her body.
I find a cold bath at the hottest point of the day helps. Sometimes I just use a wet handkerchief or paper towel around my neck.
My husband worked in an ice house in the summer as a teen – cutting up big blocks of river ice into ice cubes; I have never been able to believe that went on as late as the 1960s! He loved how his summer job kept him nice and cool all summer.
Now we live far enough north that there is rarely more than two weeks of heat, plus we have quite a collection of strategically-placed fans; I call it my “fan club”. We are also fortunately to live east of the Rockies; most of the moisture in the air drops on the western slopes, leaving us with a dry climate. High humidity is rare here, thanks be to God.
That said, many people in my city have the habit of moving down to the basement every summer. It’s like an all-summer camping vacation. Some even have full kitchens down there. They may rent to students in the winter, then reserve the space for themselves in the summer.
Our trees badly need trimming but my husband doesn’t want to lose the shade they provide the house & he won’t let me get them trimmed.

July 23, 2016 12:51 AM
Reply to  Beatrice

We also did the thing about promoting air flow through the house. Here’s a related article to this post:

July 24, 2016 1:19 AM
Reply to  Elaine Owen

Talking of fans, I always tell my fellow Regency dance group members that in the Regency, women would write crib notes with the dance steps on the backs of their fans. But there are so many different dances, so it would be nice to see a focus on fans and how effective a mnemonic aid they were at a ball with a variety of dances to have notes for.
Also the small lacy parasols that probably were more common in Victoria times don’t look very effective as shade providers, unlike the gigantic sun-brellas that Indian servants held over military wives in India under the East India Company. So I beg you – write the article on fans and parasols you were contemplating. Thanks!

July 22, 2016 1:02 PM

We are having an unusual heatwave here in the UK at the moment so as I don’t have air con I am resorting to an electric fan which obviously means I can’t move about too much so have to sit here reading ???. Personally I think even in winter if I had seen Darcy in his wet shirt I would have needed a fan! Thanks for this fun post Elaine.

July 23, 2016 4:19 PM
Reply to  Elaine Owen

Oh yes! Poor Elizabeth didn’t get to see that one. ? I would gladly have stood with the jug of water and may have accidentally dropped the robe just as he climbed out. ???

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
July 23, 2016 8:42 AM
Reply to  Elaine Owen

Elaine, I will be the first to admit it…wonder if you will. I’ve slowed down the DVD at that bathroom scene…second by delicious second. Yeah, that is even better than the wet shirt. Although there is nothing wrong with the wet shirt. It just needed a little more camera time.

July 22, 2016 12:29 PM

Living in NC, we have been in the mid 90s since the latter part of June. We are 20+ days of 90 or above. On these sweltering days, I wonder how we “kept our cool” in the 1950s and early 1960s. We had no A/C. One part of our house had concrete floors with room sized carpets over them. I recall coming home from school, rolling back the carpet, and lying down on the concrete floor. It was always cooler than any other place in the house. Odd how such memories become cherished ones. At the time, I found the situation quite miserable. LOL!

Zoe Burton
July 22, 2016 12:14 PM

I love this post! Your sense of humor really shows through! 😀

I always wait until July 1 before I use the a/c (I have a prejudice against paying a high electric bill all year in this all-electric apartment) but I”m sure grateful for it today!! 😀

I will add that many times in the old days, houses had transom windows, and windows in the basement. The windows in the basement and the top floor would be opened to create airflow, and transom windows did the same–encourage airflow.

If I didn’t say this before…and I may have, but my memory is suspect lately…welcome to Austen Authors!

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