By Larry Teren
The early summer of 2012 in Chicago will probably go down in the record books for the most days of 100 degrees and above weather. At least it seems that way. This baby boomer think back to the days before central air conditioning was commonplace. In fact, a window unit in a house or apartment until the mid 1960’s was considered a luxury item that few could afford.
Legend has it that during the 1930’s, the Balaban’s in Chicago installed the first ‘air cooled’ system in their movie theaters by placing big blocks of ice in the building rafters with large fans blowing the melted frozen water as a cool breeze via grated vents to the seats below. If a patron felt a slightly cold condensation while focusing on watching the film, he or she didn’t complain. In fact, Balaban and their partner Katz were so successful with their movie house emporium, that they eventually bought into the ownership of Paramount Studios. Subsequently, the U.S. Government forced them to decide to keep either the movie theaters or the movie studios as otherwise they had an unfair monopoly for distribution. B&K decided to keep the theaters. They recognized that the Feds were forcing Hollywood into a transition from the golden era where the studio was king to independent productions where distribution deals would be more profitable.
Living on the far west side of the city in the Austin neighborhood, our apartment in a two flat building had one gigantic fan placed strategically in the front center window of the living room. Someone had convinced Dad that by switching the fan on a reverse flow, it would suck all the hot air out of the house. This meant that since I slept on a high-riser bed in the dining room at the other end of the apartment, I was treated to the whirling sound of the blades in reverse on a nightly basis. Dad and Mom and siblings sleeping in their own rooms had doors to their rooms which they kept slightly ajar.
Did this unique scientific theory work? I’m not sure, but I survived the lack of air conditioning on the hottest of nights. At the least, I was not sucked back to the fan when I got out of bed to go to the bathroom.
In 1959, Dad bought a black Chevy Biscayne with tail fins. A no-frills vehicle but it had plenty of room to comfortably fit the then six of us in a car when we went on vacations or visits to relative on the north side of town. During the summer, it would mean that all four windows were open to some extent and anything but everything could fly in at a moment’s notice and hit you in the face.
In 1964, Dad bought a green Rambler Classic that by golly had air conditioning as well as seat belts. This was a vehicle well ahead of its time in accoutrements as the manufacturer was fighting to stay in business. The geniuses from Kenosha, Wisconsin, recognized the future of automobile necessities and gave the public what it wanted for less. And what it wanted was a portable air conditioner. You just needed to explain to your neighbors why you didn’t own a sensible car like a Chevrolet or Ford.
The Rambler sedan was less roomy than the Biscayne but at least we rode in otherwise comfort. Now, any trip in warm weather meant the windows were closed, the ride sealed from outside noise and particles. The air-conditioned excursions kind of spoiled us as we left the car. We had to adjust to the outside climate as well as deal with the sweaty, humidity in the apartment blowing back to the front room fan.
The baby of our brood showed up in November, 1966. The last addition before Gary was eight years earlier. Ma was by now in her mid thirties and was having a tougher time adjusting to the pregnancy during the summer. A close friend of the family suggested to Dad to buy a window air-conditioning unit for their master bedroom. Dad pointed out that he didn’t have the extra cash due to all the private tuition payments being made for the first four kids.
The dear friend said to Dad that it was not a problem because he would loan him the money and not to worry to pay it back so quickly. So now, all six and half of us spent as much free time in our parent’s master bedroom as possible.
At the end of August, 1968, we did like the Jefferson’s and moved on up to a better place. Now living on the north side, we had a townhouse. Instead of all being on one floor, we had a basement and a second floor, plenty of options to avoid each other as much as possible. But, the best part of the new abode was that we graduated to central air. When I bragged to high school mates of the wondrous invention, they looked at me like I was a hayseed- didn’t everyone have central air?
A few years ago, I changed the old rotary thermostat control in my condo to one of the those energy star digital types. Now, the temperature threshold for the air conditioning is more efficient. Standing next to selected vents, I can feel the cool breeze when it is necessarily blowing.
Since the days of central air, I don’t think I’ve ever opened a window in a room if air conditioning was available as an alternative. And that’s why today, the president of Commonwealth Edison makes a six figure annual income.