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.
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.
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.