Staying Cool Through History

Where I live, we just came out of a summer heat wave. Some people undoubtedly basked in the sweltering sunshine, but as a part-albino Irish descendant who practically burns just from looking at the sun, I was slightly less enthusiastic. I may be exaggerating about the albino part, but for someone who burns as easily as I do, direct sunlight in the hottest weather is something to be avoided.


On the other hand, I spent most of Sunday afternoon lying on the couch re-reading the second Hunger Games book and sipping cold beverages, and that’s a pretty great feeling. (Except for the moments when the main characters of my half-completed novel nagged me for relaxing instead of furthering their lives). Anyway, the heat sapped all my energy, and I got to thinking about how people dealt with heat through history.

In Ancient Egypt, people often hung wet cloths over doorways, and as the water evaporated, it cooled the air. I imagine that this solution wouldn’t work well in a humid climate, but for a dry one, it probably made a noticeable difference. Sensibly, Ancient Egyptians also made use of shade, using canopies to stay out of the sun. In fact, the first parasols were invented almost 4000 years ago in Egypt, Assyria, and China, and eventually spread to Greece and Rome, and later, Europe.

The Romans had arguably the best solution for coping with the hot summers, and pumped cool water from aqueducts into pipes that circulated through the walls. Of course, this was only for the wealthy residents, and if you were prosperous in Rome, you probably also had a few handy Gaulish slaves to fan you. Wealthy Romans could also afford to purchase snow brought down from the mountains, and use it to cool their houses, or, for the really extravagantly rich, to chill their drinks.


Building design has always been an important factor for managing summer heat. In Medieval Persia, wind towers were developed to work with the wind to provide cool air. The towers featured small windows, designed to capture gusts of wind and funnel them into the building below, like a clever wind-powered fan.

Medieval Castles kept cool during the summer due to their thick walls and high ceilings. Most castles also had small windows (glass wasn’t used for windows until the 1300s, and then only the well-to-do could afford it), which could be easily covered with shutters or curtains. Closing the windows in the morning helped keep the cool air from the night inside for the rest of the day.

Interestingly, most live-in castles were built during the Little Climatic Optimum (between 800-1300), when average temperatures tended to be a little higher. The start of The Little Ice Age (1300-1800) saw the rise of manor houses, which were easier to heat than the traditional castle. Many of these manor houses featured high ceilings and large shade trees in the yard to keep the sun from penetrating into the house. Later, porches became a popular way for shading the perimeter of the house.

Clothing is obviously another important way of coping with the heat. Loose, light clothing has been a sensible choice for many throughout history. In the 1700s, the pirate Jack Rackham was known for wearing distinctive calico clothing. In fact, it’s why he earned the nickname “Calico Jack.” Rackham had his calico clothing as an identifier, just like Edward Teach had his black beard. (It’s actually pretty amazing I have gone this long without mentioning Blackbeard, as loyal readers may have noticed!) Calico is brightly dyed cotton, so aside from having a liking for colourful patterns, Rackham was also smart enough to choose a cloth that breathed.

Sadly, I cannot say the same for Blackbeard. He was wily enough that I felt compelled to write a novel about him, but I guess everyone has a weak spot. Look at this drawing:

blackbeard - fur hat

Yes, that is a fur hat. In the Caribbean. And what is probably a wool coat. Let’s hope the brisk sea wind provided a lot of cooling. Although, to be fair, there’s a good chance that this drawing is based on the artist’s imagination, and in my research for this post, I also read that wool might be a smart hot weather cloth choice, since it repels moisture. I haven’t tried this though, and cannot comment.

Accessories like fans and parasols are historically very popular ways of staying out of the sun and cooling down. In many of her portraits, Queen Elizabeth I is shown holding a fan. Since these could be elaborately painted, and made of materials ranging from paper to wood, fans were a popular fashion device as well as a practical one for keeping cool. In the 18th and 19th century, many women owned several parasols, in order to match them with different outfits. Parasols were a staple for women who wanted to walk outside and maintain a fashionably pale complexion. Being pale indicated that a person did not have to work outside, and therefore suggested a life of wealth and leisure. In the early 1900s, doctors would often prescribe sunbathing for ailments such as tuberculosis, and gradually, having tanned skin became a symbol of health and vitality.

Monet - Woman With a Parasol

I think I secretly wish parasols would become popular again


Enjoy the summer weather, wherever you are. A lovely summer day is the perfect time to curl up with a book, I think. Then again, I also say that for rainy days, and snowy days, and grey days…


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