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How did Floridians survive before air conditioning? Florida Wonders explores.

Early Sunshine State residents had a number of ways to tolerate the heat.
"Florida Wonders" is a new Tampa Bay Times series where readers can ask questions and we will answer them.

Welcome back to Florida Wonders, a series where Times journalists answer your questions. This week, John Cowart wanted to know: What did Floridians do to keep cool before home air conditioning became commonplace?

Floridians can thank Dr. John Gorrie. The Apalachicola physician created the technology that led to refrigeration and air conditioning.

John Gorrie of Florida, inventor of the ice machine, stands next to the popular Rosa Parks, left, in Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 2, 2013. A physician, scientist, and inventor, Gorrie is considered the father of refrigeration and air conditioning. He died impoverished and virtually forgotten in 1855. [ Associated Press (2013) ]

Have something you’ve been wondering about the Tampa Bay area or Florida? Ask Florida Wonders.

Gorrie invented a system that blew air over ice to help refresh his patients who suffered from malaria and yellow fever, according to Times archives.

Despite being mocked for his innovative idea and called a fraud, Gorrie patented his “Machine for Artificial Production of Ice” in 1851. A statue honoring him as a notable Floridian would later be added to Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. In 1902, Willis Carrier built on Gorrie’s technology and introduced the first electrical air conditioning unit.

Dr. John Gorrie's ice-making machine. [ Times (1975) ]

Air conditioning started popping up in some public places, like theaters and hotels, in the 1920s. In the following decades, A/C would be added to restaurants, train cars, supermarkets and homes of the rich.

The Florida Theatre in St. Petersburg was kept so frigid that it almost ruined the grand opening in 1926.

“Underestimating the power of their new cooling plant, ‘the proud management had the temperature down so low that ladies in evening dresses almost froze!’” Ray Arsenault wrote in St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream.

George Jenkin's second Publix store opened in 1940. The grocery store was one of the first at this time to have air conditioning, fluorescent lighting, frozen food cases and automatic sliding entrance doors. [ Courtesy of Publix Super Markets (1940) ]

Air conditioning wouldn’t creep into homes until the 1940s and 50s. Swampy Florida, currently home to over 21 million people, used to be the least populated Southern state. Many residents were snowbirds, fleeing as the mugginess of late spring set in and returning in December.

READ MORE: Oh, Florida! Without air conditioning we’re a stinky swamp of sweat. With it, we warm the world

Floridians who stuck it out during the hottest months simply formed their lives around the stifling temperatures, wearing shorts and sandals to work or even government meetings. They cooled themselves with paper fans and guzzled iced tea. They swam.

According to Gary Mormino’s book Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams, Floridians trapped cool morning air inside their homes with closed windows and depended on ceiling fans for relief. Evenings were for savoring breezes on the porch.

The heat even influenced architecture, he wrote. Florida Cracker style homes featured shiny metal roofs, tall ceilings that allowed warmth to rise, and wide windows and porches to welcome airflow.

Historian and volunteer Ruth Tompkins gives a tour of the Baker House in Pasco, a pioneer home built in the Cracker style in 1882. [ Times (1998) ]
Cutaway view of a Ron Haase Cracker house shows how the chimney effect of the observation tower helps cool the house in summer. [ Times (1983) ]

As air conditioning appeared in some homes during the 1940s, the technology remained too expensive for many Floridians. According to Mormino, some were also against the idea of having it even to cool down schoolrooms. Old timers liked to say that sweating “bred character.”

“Many chose not to purchase window units because they simply enjoyed Florida as it was,” he wrote.

Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had a typical Cracker home on State Road 325 in the hamlet of Cross Creek. [ Times (1960) ]

Air conditioning became more popular after World War II, ushering in a new era of tourism, wrote Tracy Revels in Sunshine Paradise. By the 1960s, units that were more efficient and affordable made air conditioning more common in homes.

The population exploded. So did the number of tourists. Florida saw a rise in roadside attractions and amusement parks.

READ MORE: Let’s revisit Florida’s bizarre lost theme parks from before the Disney era

“Of course, with more people, we needed more roads, more buildings, more sidewalks, more parking lots, more rooftops, more concrete, more asphalt — all reflecting, absorbing and releasing heat,” wrote Miami Herald columnist Bob Swift in 1990. “Thus, it’s hotter in South Florida than it used to be. Ergo, we need even more AC, itself a creator of outdoor heat.”

By the 1990s, Mormino wrote, air conditioning was a billion dollar industry — the “greatest single source of energy expended by Floridians.”

Editor’s note: Tracy Revels is the author of Sunshine Paradise. A previous version of this story misidentified the author.

What questions do you have about the Tampa Bay area or Florida? Fill out the form below or email your inquiries to floridawonders@tampabay.com.

Need inspiration? Here’s what other readers were curious about:

Information from Times archives was used in this story.

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