Summer heat wave! How people had to stay cool & cope with hot weather 100+ years ago

Kids around a fountain in 1911 to get water on a hot day

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


In July 1911, New York City experienced a blistering heat wave that lasted eleven days, bringing the city to a standstill. Thermometers hit unprecedented highs, reaching up to 106 degrees. The oppressive heat claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 people and affected many more, highlighting the need for better public health measures and infrastructure to deal with extreme weather.

The relentless sun turned the city’s asphalt streets into sticky, melting rivers. Horses, which were the primary mode of transportation at the time, collapsed from exhaustion and heatstroke. The city’s fountains and fire hydrants became impromptu relief stations where people sought any respite from the heat.

Boys and girls around a water fountain during the heat wave (colorized)

The heatwave didn’t just affect human life; it disrupted daily routines and business operations. Factories had to adjust their hours, and the ice supply — essential for preserving food and keeping cool — ran dangerously low. The city’s poor suffered the most, as tenement buildings turned into suffocating ovens with little to no ventilation.

Below, we’ve gathered a collection of vintage photos (several colorized images are included, too!) and articles that capture the impact of the New York heatwave of 1911. These snapshots from history give us a glimpse into how New Yorkers coped with one of the city’s most challenging summers. Check them out to see how the city beat the heat over a century ago — and let’s count our sweet blessings for the electric fans, refrigeration and air conditioning of today!

The New York heat wave: 94 degrees, year’s highest heat, sends 1,250,000 out of town for relief, and beaches and summer resorts are crowded (1911)

New York Tribune (New York, NY) July 3, 1911

New York experienced the hottest weather of the year yesterday. The Weather Bureau’s thermometer registered 94 degrees at 4 o’clock. For the four preceding hours, it hovered within a degree or two of that mark. Thermometers in the streets registered as high as 100 degrees.

Scraped ice seller on a hot day in New York City c1911 - Colorized
Scraped ice seller on a hot day in New York City in 1911 – Colorized

The city suffered intensely under the fierce heat. At an early hour this morning, it had claimed ten victims in the metropolitan district.

Death claimed many victims on the adjacent waters. Nine people were drowned, and several others were reported missing. Both death lists were increasing at midnight, and a conservative estimate placed the fatalities caused either directly or indirectly by the weather at not less than twenty-five.

The heat wave covered the country east of the Rockies and extended north into Canada, the highest official temperature reported being 108 degrees at Rocklesse, Ont. The Middle West sweltered under a temperature that in many places exceeded 100 degrees.

MORE: Huge old outdoor public swimming pools like these made summertime cool for everyone 100 years ago

New York heat wave in 1911 - Man cooling his head
NYC heat wave: “Cooling his head — NY on hot day”

Scores were prostrated by the heat in greater New York. Some of these prostrations probably will result fatally. The clang of ambulances as they rushed through the city on their rescue work was heard all day throughout the city. The weather was responsible for one suicide.

All day, the sun’s rays heat down relentlessly, and the suffering in the tenement house districts was especially intense.

It was estimated that 1,250,000 persons left the city and sought relief at nearby summer resorts and at the beaches. Coney Island had a record-breaking crowd: four hundred thousand persons visiting the resort during the day.

Coney Island beach scenes (1890s-1920s)

Ten thousand of the visitors, dreading a return to their city homes, spent the night at the island with the beach for their bed, the sand for their pillows. Captain Murphy detailed twenty-five policemen to guard them while in slumberland.

The average temperature yesterday was 83. For the last thirty-three years, the average for July 2 has been 71 degrees.

New York heat wave in 1911 - Ice water in the park
NYC heat wave: Ice water in the park
Crowds start early

The city awoke to a stifling day. As early as 6 o’clock in the morning, the cars running to the beaches and nearby summer resorts began to fill. A few hours later, the jam was terrific. All the elevated trains were crowded until standing room was a prize worth fighting for.

The surface lines were, if possible, even more congested. Every seat on them was filled. and the space between seats was packed as tightly as a sardine box. Those who found it impossible to get inside the car hung on the running boards, and only a benign Providence prevented mere serious and fatal accidents.

Everyone who could get out of the city, as far away as possible from the pavements, which in the morning shone white, but in the heat of midday succumbed to the attacks of the sun and looked like nothing as much as rivulets of melted tar.

People sleeping in Battery Park during old New York City 1911 heat wave - Colorized
Man sleeping in Battery Park during old New York City 1911 heat wave – Colorized

The traction lines found it utterly impossible to handle the immense volume of traffic. The situation was almost as bad in regard to the railroad lines doing what is known as commuting business.

The people of the city were unanimous in their desire to get out of town, and they didn’t seem to care whether their paths led them to green fields or the seashore.

The thermometer started rising yesterday with the sun. At 8 o’clock, it registered 72 degrees, according to the Weather Bureau report. Perhaps it recalled certain feats of soaring aviators and was a bit jealous; anyhow it contained its mad and maddening skyward flight and before it had finished had smashed a few altitude records itself.

Men sleeping in Battery Park during New York City 1911 heat wave - Colorized
People sleeping in Battery Park during New York City 1911 heat wave – Colorized

At 1 o’clock, the mercury had mounted to 90, an hour later it was 91. During the next hour, it had crept up to 93 and at 3:30 o’clock it registered 94 degrees in the shade, At 5 o’clock it began to drop.

MORE: See old-fashioned swimsuits & what else people wore to the beach 100 years ago

New York heat wave newspaper - July 5 1911

The New York heat wave: Too hot for golf or tennis

Early in the day, crowds swarmed the tennis courts and golf courses for their regular Sunday amusement and exercise, but here again, heat entered the lists and came out victorious.

The most ardent tennis enthusiast was gasping for breath before a set had been finished, The most enthusiastic devotee of the great Scotch game packed his clubs in his bag, paid his caddy, mopped his brow, and started to the nearest place where cooling drinks might be had, either soft or strong, awaiting another day to defeat old Colonel Bogey.

For the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, yesterday was a day of rest, of quiet and repose; but even under these favorable circumstances and the facilities they gave for keeping quiet and cool, ten died from the effects of the cat and scores were prostrated.

What deaths and the hospitals’ toll would have been had the day been an ordinary weekday, a day when the masses of the city were all following their usual vocations, instead of a Sunday, is awe-inspiring to speculate upon.

New York heat wave - In the park on a hot day - 1911 heat wave
NYC heat wave: “In the park on a hot day – ‘played out'”

Besides the deaths due directly to heat, the weather was also indirectly responsible for numerous others. Many persons were drowned in the surrounding waters, where they went to escape the heat; others met death in trolley car accidents, and still others in automobile mishaps.

Human beings were not the only sufferers from the sweltering weather. Numbers of horses dropped in the streets and had to be shot. Others kept the police busy reviving them by turning on the hose.

ALSO SEE: Antique iceboxes: What they were & how they worked their magic (1850s-1930s)

The animals in the Central Park menageries, where the thermometer registered from 95 to 96 throughout most of the day, had two hoses playing on them constantly, and the cold water afforded them some relief.

A big polar bear and a black bear shared the same quarters, in which there was a tank. Both insisted on lying in it at the same time, and as it was not large enough for both bears, their keepers had a busy day.

Licking blocks of ice on hot day in 1911 - Colorized
NYC heat wave: Licking blocks of ice on hot day in 1911 – Colorized
Half a million at Coney Island during the New York heat wave

There is an old saying that “it is an ill wind which blows nobody good.” Unfortunately, there was no wind at all yesterday, but the keepers of Coney Island bath houses and resorts believed firmly in the philosophy of the saying.

Yesterday was the record day for Coney Island. Nearly half a million visitors found their way there during the day. Such an enormous crowd the island — and it is an island used to enormous crowds — has never before seen.

Every elevated train, every surface car, every steamer, brought them in by the hundreds and thousands. Hundreds of automobiles chugged in seemingly never-ending succession along the parkways, all bound for the same place. Motorways, catboats, every kind of boat beat its way along the waters laboriously or gayly, as its build and power enabled, for the same destination.

And from the unending stream of visitors poured an unending stream of coin, which cheered the hearts of everybody on the island who had anything to sell, let or hire — and what Coney Islander hasn’t?

MORE: See amazing photos of old Atlantic City, New Jersey – a beautiful & popular vacation destination 100 years ago

New York heat wave - Hot day at Coney Island 1911
Thousands coped with the heat wave at the beach

Kids dipping their heads in the fountain

Trying to stay cool during the heat wave, here some kids (mostly boys) are seen dipping their heads in a fountain.

NYC hot weather street scene - boys dipping their heads in fountain

Hot weather drinking fountain

During the hot, hot days, everyone got a little relief from the public drinking fountains

NYC On a hot day - people drinking water at a fountain

Kids around a water fountain during the heat wave (colorized)

Boys and girls around a water fountain during the heat wave (colorized)

12 amazing old indoor swimming pools that will make you want to dive right in

Free shower baths for horses

Hot weather charity, New York… for horses only.

Watering horses on a hot day in NYC

In the park with babies & strollers during the 1911 New York heat wave

Women, children and babies tried to cool off in the park

In the park with babies and strollers during the 1911 New York heat wave - Colorized

Swimming in the fountain at Madison Square Park

These kids didn’t need a pool – into the fountain they went, while bystanders watched (probably wishing they could get in, too)

Swimming in the fountain at Madison Square Park in 1911

Hot day in N.Y., after a swim in fountain

DON’T MISS: San Francisco’s amazing & huge swimming pools at Sutro Baths: See this Victorian marvel

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

One Response

  1. My great-grandfather grew up during this era and kept a detailed diary. He wrote about playing baseball outside in the summer heat. He and his friends had one approach to staying cool — taking their clothes off. My great-grandfather noted that some of the boys played completely naked. That’s understandable considering folks didn’t have the lightweight clothes we have today — a little immodesty is better than heatstroke. However, I can’t imagine today’s kids doing this.

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.