'Flashback' Lecture Notes: How Air Conditioning Changed American Politics - OZY | A Modern Media Company

'Flashback' Lecture Notes: How Air Conditioning Changed American Politics

'Flashback' Lecture Notes: How Air Conditioning Changed American Politics

By Sean Braswell

SourceGetty, Composite by Ned Colin


Because a little more comfort can be a big thing.

By Sean Braswell

In Episode 3 of Flashback, a new podcast from OZY, we learn how even the most welcome of inventions can have unintended consequences. 

Thanks to the spread of air conditioning during the 20th century, places like Washington, D.C., became far more habitable during the summer months, triggering one of the biggest internal human migrations in history and laying the groundwork for the expansion of the U.S. federal government and a new political geography — one that continues to impact our elections today.

Air conditioning in the workplace - man seated at his desk in the office.

(Left) Air conditioning in the workplace — man seated at his desk in the office. (Right) A sign outside an American restaurant points to the ‘White Rest Rooms’, in a clear indication of racial segregation, circa 1960.

Source Getty Images

This week on Flashback: Find out how cooler homes transformed Americans’ lives — and eventually their government as well. You can listen here, and then enjoy digging deeper into the story in my Lecture Notes below.


Victorian Teatime

A bored teenage girl at a Victorian tea party, circa 1895. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

How did the Victorian preference for multiple layers of clothing mix with American summers before the advent of air conditioning? It was a hot mess. Multiple petticoats, corsets, long-sleeved dresses, gloves and hats might have been the epitome of style and modesty for women in the late 19th century, but they were rarely permitted to remove a stitch, even in soaring temperatures. Men did not have it any easier in their waistcoats, suits, wool frock overcoats, gloves and hats. And neither complaints nor excessive perspiration were socially tolerable, so one had to keep a stiff upper lip about it, even if that lip was beaded over with sweat. 


James Garfield

President James Abram Garfield being assassinated by Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker, over his support of civil service reform. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

No one was immune from the heat. Not even the president. President James Garfield was shot twice inside a boiling hot Washington train station as he left for his own summer break in July 1881. His assassin would hang for his crime. Garfield would suffer almost as much. For the next 79 sweltering summer days — as the president lay dying in the White House — the temperature hovered around 100 degrees. Naval engineers tried in vain to make the president more comfortable. They used more than half a million pounds of ice and rigged an air blower to keep the president’s room 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the White House. It wasn’t enough. Garfield died 11 weeks after the shooting.


Why were James Garfield and the U.S. government suffering in Washington — a city built on a swamp alongside the Potomac River — in the first place? The city did not become the nation’s capital on its own merit. It was a compromise candidate, chosen to appease pro-slavery states that feared a northern capital. And as you can hear in an amazing number from Hamilton, it was the kind of murky backroom decision the marshy backwater would become known for.


For those of you who are policy wonks or history buffs and enjoy a slow, C-SPAN-scored romp through America’s policymaking past, check out the talk the late political scientist Nelson Woolf Polsby gave about his book How Congress Evolves in 2004. Around the 23:00 mark is where he gets into the effects of residential air conditioning on the shifting make-up of Congress.


Air conditioning is not the only climate-altering force that will shape the distribution of the U.S. population in the future. I talked to Matthew Hauer, a demographer and sociologist at Florida State University, about how sea level rise in the next few decades could shift the U.S. population. Hint: Don’t buy seaside real estate in southern Florida.

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