Temps are topping 100F? Count those sweet AC blessings!
If you think the heat waves of this summer are bad, imagine how hard it was to beat the heat before air conditioning, electric fans, and refrigeration were in widespread use!
Below, you can see some of the ways people managed to stay cool during the great New York heat wave of 1911. While they didn’t have AC back then, they did find many creative ways to use water to help take the edge off the record-breaking hot weather. (Several colorized images are included.)
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Hot weather drinking fountain
During the hot, hot days, everyone got a little relief from the public drinking fountains
Kids around a water fountain during the heat wave (colorized)
Free shower baths for horses
Hot weather charity, New York… for horses only.
In the park with babies & strollers during the 1911 New York heat wave
Women, children and babies tried to cool off in the park
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)