There once was a growing city that had an alligator garden, a sky ride at Brackenridge Park, a mayor named Jack White, and almost no air conditioning.
It’s hard to imagine, but people survived in San Antonio for centuries without air conditioning. Some homes were built to withstand brutal temperatures. San Antonians fought the heat by forming their lives around it.
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When Daniela Rodriguez Quintanilla was a child, her mother would tell her to lightly touch her stomach until goosebumps spread across her skin.
“Eventually, it wouldn’t be so hot,” Rodriguez Quintanilla said.
Others cooled themselves with paper fans and gobbled paletas. People also went swimming in rivers and lakes.
Elisabeth Rodriguez and her daughter, Beth Angel Montelongo, 6, try to stay cool in the only room in their apartment with any cooling on Tuesday, August 18, 2009.
LISA KRANTZ/SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS NEWS
San Antonians may thank Willis Haviland Carrier for inventing the modern AC system in 1902.
Over two decades later, Carrier’s company collaborated with a San Antonio architect to build the Milam Building, the world’s first high-rise with a full mechanical AC system.
Soon after, air conditioning started popping up in some downtown buildings in the 1920s. In the following decades, AC units would be added to restaurants, department stores, grocery stores, public buses and homes of the rich.
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In 1936, Joske’s department store became the first fully air-conditioned store in Texas. It was such a big deal that they featured it in advertisements.
But air conditioning wouldn’t be commonly used until the 1940s and 50s, with window units being added to existing homes. Friedrich Air Conditioning Co., which still has its headquarters in San Antonio, was a leader in manufacturing window units.
How people survived in San Antonio
Early caliche and adobe block homes in San Antonio had large openings on all four walls that were closed by day and opened at night to catch the breezes from the Gulf of Mexico.
San Antonians built homes with deep screened porches to shade the main walls of the house and allow air to flow through. Others were shaded by large oak trees, making the inside of the homes 10 to 20 degrees cooler than ones that baked all day in the sun.
Later, some homes were built on a southeast axis with even larger windows on opposite walls to draw in night breezes. When it wasn’t breezy, heat and humidity made sleep a tortuous, damp ordeal.
Electricity’s arrival in the 1870s set of fan blades whirring, circulating indoor air. Texans learned that running water over a screen or cloth placed in front of a fan cooled the air.
View of the Majestic Theater on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012. When the Majestic Theater in 1929, it was the first theater in Texas to have air conditioning.
Kin Man Hui/SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS NEWS
Millions of large and small evaporative coolers, or “swamp coolers,” made their way into homes and businesses.
Mary Nelda Pedroza lived with her grandparents in the late 1990s. There was no air conditioning in their home in Natalia, a city about 30 miles southwest of San Antonio.
“I remember my grandfather would sometimes set up a huge swamp cooler on the outside of my front porch with a water line going into it,” said Pedroza, 45, whose grandparents finally installed a wall unit in one of the bedrooms after her grandmother suffered a heart attack. “That’s how we would cool down, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I just remember it feeling humid all the time.”
In the days before AC, others used ice blocks for added cooling.
A unit manufactured in 1952 sits in the new design and development center for Friedrich, a manufacturer of room air conditioners.
Helen L. Montoya/San Antonio Express News
Texas was a pioneer in commercially made ice, accounting for 10 percent of the nation’s production. San Antonio was said to have more ice houses than churches.
Texas also popularized the use of refrigerated rail cars for meat, fish and produce shipments.
Ice blocks were the first automobile “air conditioners” — ice buckets were placed near vents to cool air flow.
Nash cars, which owned Kelvinator appliances, offered a water cooler on its 1938 cars.
Packard offered mechanical cooling in 1939 with a unit that took almost the entire trunk. It wasn’t until after World War II, when Cadillac moved its controls from under the hood to inside the car, that air conditioning became an attractive option.
Hearst newspaper archives were used in this report.