Beat the heat

August 21, 2019


Before air conditioning, Victorian life followed seasonal cycles determined by the weather.  Not surprisingly, workers’ productivity declined in direct proportion to the heat and humidity outside – on the hottest days, employees left work early and businesses shut their doors.  Stores and theaters also closed down, unable to accommodate large groups of people in their stifling interiors.  Cities emptied as people fled to the mountains and the seashore.


Architects designed homes to maximize airflow in hopes that the occupants would be kept cool.  High ceilings were not just decorative, but also allowed a space for hot air to go.  As the hot air rose, people on the floor stayed cooler.  Coupled with large pocket windows that rose all the way into the walls above, high ceilings promoted airflow that kept air moving through each room. Adjoining rooms were yet another way to improve air circulation.  All the rooms in the living areas of the Physick House join those next to them. 


A wide covered porch also helped to keep the Victorian house comfortable.  As air passed under the covered porch, it was shielded enough from the sun to drop a few degrees.  By the time the air passed into the house, it was much cooler than the air outside.  Shutters and shades were also employed to keep the house cool.  Louvered shutters, like we find on the Physick House, allowed air to pass through but kept out the heat of the sun.  Often, shutters and shades were opened and closed throughout the day as the sun moved around the house.  Many a maid was probably kept busy as she traveled from room to room adjusting the shutters to keep out the sun.


Before window screens, summertime must have been a horrendous experience. Open windows did allow the air to flow through the house, but also left the occupants of the house open to attack from every gnat, mosquito and no-see-um on the planet.  Window screens solved that problem.  Machine made wire screening was available in the United Sates by the 1870s.  As the benefits of wire screening became evident, manufacturers turned out patented screens of every design.  There were expandable screens, hinged screens, sliding screens and spring framed screens.  These screens were available in numerous types of wood including rosewood, mahogany, and pine.  Here at the Physick House, the family opted for sliding screens.  If you look at the window screens carefully, you’ll see that they can be slid up and down on a wooden track, which holds the screen close to the open window.  Sliding screens meant that the maid could simply slide the screen out of the way as she adjusted the exterior shutter to block the hot sunlight from entering the house.


Since those early iron or steel screens would quickly rust to pieces (especially near the ocean) it was customary to paint them.  Typically, screens were painted either green or black depending on the wishes of the mistress of the house.



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