The Garden Gate: Keep cool in July’s heat

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

July is usually a hot month, but this July so far has been the hottest one on record. Our air conditioners have been running full time — and we have been complaining full time, too.

But have you considered what uncounted generations before us did to beat the heat before air conditioning was invented?

Houses were often built with a center hall with openings to the outside at each end to provide a breezeway to help keep the house cool. In the southern states especially, houses were often built with hollow walls, which insulated the house to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Sometimes small open grilles were set into the upper part of the walls of the high-ceilinged rooms on each floor of a brick house to conduct heated air upward to the attic, where vents in the roof allow it to escape.

Farmhouses were often surrounded with a grove of trees, usually deciduous ones, which provided shade in the summer and, with the leaves gone in the fall, admitted sunlight in the winter.

Venetian blinds — which were really invented in the Middle East — have provided shade while catching any passing breeze for several hundred years.

During the Italian Renaissance, many gardens were designed and built relying on fountains, pools and waterfalls to cool the summer air. The famous fountains in Rome date from this period, as do the water cascades and reflecting pools in the gardens of Versailles in France.

Many gardens in Persia and India have long, shallow reflecting pools designed to cool the air and provide a delight to the eye with reflections of passing clouds and wind-stirred trees.

This was a principle used today by many landscape architects and designers. Jens Jensen and Ellen Shipman, both of whom planned many estate and public gardens in the early years of the 20th century, are good examples.

Public and countless private swimming pools come into their own as popular places in which to cool down. This is far from being a new thing. Feroz Shah, who reigned in India from 1321-88, is said to have made 100 gardens around Delhi and to have constructed large tanks to be used for public swimming in the gardens.

The ancient Romans had swimming pools, but they were for the very rich rather than being an amenity for everyone.

To the people of India, a pool is very important because of the intense heat of that climate. For us, it is a place of sport and relaxation, even though it is a descendant of the Shah’s great tanks of the 14th century and of the swimming pools beloved of royalty in ancient Egypt.

In the 18th century hanging a wet sheet in front of an open window screened out the hot sunlight and provided a cooling effect within the house.

Placing ice in front of an electric fan was an Edwardian idea, and ceiling fans operated by a servant pulling on a cord to keep the fan moving are still common in India.

Plants also provide some cooling effects. Have you ever noticed that flower petals are always cool to the touch, no matter how hot the day? And no matter where you put it, a bunch of garden mint stalks in a vase will not only repel mosquitos, but add a cool scent to the room.

There is a charming little story about a hostess during the Civil War when ice was unavailable. She put several silver spoons into her silver water pitcher to make a pleasant ice-like clinking sound when she poured cool water from the well for her guests.

A crystal bowl of water with green leaves floating in it makes a cool centerpiece for a dining table, and a big arrangement of ferns in front of the fireplace is an attractive summertime touch.

The Victorians made a big point of closing shutters and blinds during the heat of the day. Their homes often were quite dark but cooler than they would have been if the hot sun had been pouring in.

Until air conditioning came into being, many churches provided stiff paper fans among the hymnals in the pew racks. These were usually imprinted with the advertising of the local funeral parlor which donated them and were gratefully utilized during a lengthy sermon.

Keeping food fresh and cold was a problem for our ancestors. We forget, with our modern refrigerators and freezers, that people used to put perishable foods into a covered bucket and then lowered the bucket into the well or set it in a spring or in the coolest part of a cool cellar.

Lemonade has always been a popular summertime drink, sharing honors with iced tea, which is now loved worldwide.

Legend has it that iced tea was popularized at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair by Englishman Richard Blechyden, who had been employed by the Indian Tea Co. to dispense steaming hot tea.

That summer was unusually hot and humid, and steaming tea was not a popular item. In desperation, Blechyden is said to  have poured the hot tea over glasses filled with piled up chunks of ice, thus creating an instant success.

Many families had an ice house on their property, where ice blocks cut from the river or pond in winter were packed in straw and kept in a dark shed for use during the summer months.

Is your lawn sprinkler going now? Is your air conditioner turned on at full force? Is your electric fan creating a breeze in your living room? Are there enough ice cubes from your freezer in your tall glass of tea?

Count your blessings!

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.