Modern air conditioning has been a widespread feature in homes and vehicles for less than 50 years, but humans have lived in the Valley of the Sun for millennia. As we lament the heat of the summertime, we may gain some perspective by looking back to a time before there were 70-degree refuges readily available in Arizona.
How did these brave ancestors of ours survive the summer without the cool blasting reprieve of the air conditioner? It wasn’t easy. They used some of the same strategies we employ today and many others that most of us haven’t considered.
Nomadic peoples roamed the Valley as early as 9000 B.C., but our area’s first serious agricultural settlers were the Hohokam. They began settling the areas surrounding the once-raging Salt River around the year 1 A.D.
Today, you can visit the remains of the epicenter of their civilization at the Pueblo Grande Museum near Sky Harbor Airport. To enable this permanent settlement, the Hohokam people developed an extensive canal system to funnel water off the river to keep their crops growing year-round.
As far as bearing the brutal sun, they did the best they could.
“I am sure there were no great ways for dealing with the heat by the ancient Pueblo people who lived in the area,” said Professor Donald L. Fixico, a scholar of American Indian Studies at ASU. “Surely, they used water from the river and canals to cool themselves and keep hydrated.”
The museum features some re-creations of various home structures they employed throughout their history. These adobe homes feature shaded ramada-type structures outside main rooms that many believe functioned as places of refuge on hot days.
For them, outside in the shade was the coolest possible place to be in the summertime. Despite this seemingly brutal lifestyle, the Hohokam were able to maintain a steady presence in the area for 1,500 years.
American settlers arrived in central Arizona in the early 19th century. Perhaps the most vivid account of living here in this time comes from Martha Summerhayes, the wife of an Army lieutenant.
According to Summerhayes, at that time, the then Arizona territory was said to be “the hottest place that ever existed.” She spent 1876–1878 at old Fort McDowell and offers fascinating, amusing and intimate insight as to what daily life was like in her book, Vanished Arizona.
She talks of uncomfortably hot dresses, perpetually dusty hair, “indescribably” smelly rotten food and swimming in the Verde River.
She and her family slept outdoors on iron cots with their legs stuck in cans of water to ward off ants and scorpions, but the “incredibly” early sunrise and disconcerting howls of nearby coyotes prevented anyone from getting much rest.
“The good sweet slumber which I craved never came to me in those weird Arizona nights under the stars,” Summerhayes wrote.
In fact, according to Scottsdale Historian Joan Fudala, before the arrival of swamp coolers in the 20s, in the summertime, Valley dwellers almost exclusively slept outside, sometimes wrapping themselves in wet blankets.
In those years, there were very few traditional houses or structures in town. Most were tent homes: framed structures with big canvas flaps on the side that could be opened to catch any morning or evening breeze (you can see a re-creation of one at the Scottsdale Historical Museum in Old Town). These homes featured outdoor kitchens and were generally far too hot to spend much time in during the summer.
“It helped the sense of community because everybody was out doing things in their front yard in the evenings. I guess you really did get to know your neighbors when you were sleeping next to them,” Fudala said.
In a time before swimming pools, early Arizonans swam in large cattle troughs, canals and the now dried-up Salt River at a popular place once called “Tempe Beach.”
In 1918, electricity arrived in Scottsdale and with it, the town’s first swamp cooler appeared at Brown’s General Store.
Slowly but surely, things started to change.
Traditional, fully-enclosed homes sprung up and people began to sleep and cook inside. Refrigeration radically expanded the availability of raw meat and dairy and an ice cream parlor opened in Old Town. The concept of the “summer blockbuster” also developed in the 20s as the area’s first cooled movie theaters opened in Phoenix and Tempe, offering a respite from the heat.
Still, evaporative cooling wasn’t perfect. Nearly all the area’s resorts closed in the summer, and the Valley was still perceived as an extreme place to live. Air conditioning changed that.
The history of modern AC is intertwined with the history of Phoenix. In the 1940s, local company Goettl created the first air conditioning units that could be effectively used to cool buildings to the luxurious indoor temperatures to which we’ve since grown accustomed.
Fudala says that although there were many factors in our area’s population explosion following WWII, without AC, none of that growth would have been possible.
Although we still complain, to be sure, we have quite an advantage over our pre-AC ancestors. They found ingenious ways to survive, but as Summerhayes reminds us, it was not easy.
“I did not like those desert places, and they grew to have a horror for me,” Summerhayes concluded.