Fighting the Heat at Night in the Summertime

Original Airdates: August 10, 11, 13 (2010)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.

During the summer months in Waco before air-conditioning, getting comfortable enough at night to go to sleep could be a challenge.

Charles Armstrong recalls an alteration made to the house his family moved into in the early 1920s:

“We didn't live there long till Daddy and my brothers built a room on the back, went all the way across. They called it a sleeping porch. It had windows all the way around it, you know, just one window after the other all the way around it.”

Mary Sendón remembers the porch on her childhood home:

“Right in back of the hallway, at the end of the house, was a screened-in porch. It was screened in on one side; that was one side that opened out, but it was the coolest, most comfortable place. We spent our summers out there almost all the time. And, of course, the porch was a wonderful place to sleep in the summertime. My mother and dad slept on the back porch in the summertime because it was right next to the kitchen, and they got up early.”

Sendón explains that fans helped a little:

“My grandfather had fans in his shop, you know. And he finally got the idea of putting a fan on the back porch, and that fan circulated the air. All the doors were open to—the kitchen, the dining room, and the bedrooms—all opened out onto that back porch. And that fan circulated air and kept that part of the house pretty cool. And then, of course, we had these little circulating fans, you know, we'd put down on the floor. But it would cool one spot; it really didn't do all that much good. Somebody got the fan; somebody didn't.”

She describes what she did one particular night:

“And my sister and I, we had a front bedroom, and all the windows were up, but still it was just blazing hot. So we decided—our front hall, this hall that went all through the house had linoleum covering on it. It was cool. We took our pillows, and we decided we were going to sleep on the floor in front of the front door so to be cool.”

Thomas Wayne Harvey recalls his family left the house altogether to get a good night's rest:

“It was too hot to sleep inside in those days. The folks, they'd move their bed outside about twenty or thirty yards away from the house so they could catch a breeze from all directions because there wasn't no trees or anything to stop the breeze. And I'd have my bed right there next to the house. I had a rollaway bed with a feather mattress on it. That was in case of rain that they could just fold mine up and roll it inside right quick. And then they could fold their—they carried one mattress out there, and they could fold that mattress with their bed—put the pillows in the center and fold the mattress and run inside right quick if it started raining.”

Harvey relates the perils of sleeping outside:

“It kind of got comical at times. We had an old cow named Pet, and you know how a cow stands around and chews the cud and they take their tongue and lick one side of their nostril and lick the other side of their nostril. Old Pet, she'd chew her rope in two and come up there and—that old cow liked my daddy—and that old cow would come up there and start licking him on the face (laughs) early every morning because she was wanting to be milked. And then we also had a rooster that would get up there on the head—the old iron bedstead, and he would get up there and crow every morning and wake everybody up. And it'd also (laughs) leave his telltale marks every once in a while right on Daddy's forehead.”

With the availability and affordability of window units after WWII, air-conditioning became a possibility for many southern homes, making it finally possible to snooze comfortably in one's own bed in the summer. The architecture of new houses soon changed as a result, and existing sleeping porches were torn down or converted into sunrooms.

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