Hot days, steamy nights Keeping cool: In days before air conditioning, Marylanders learned to weather summer swelter.

June 28, 1998

IT SOUNDS pretty incredible now. But just decades ago, Baltimoreans routinely beat the summer heat by sleeping outside in the comparative coolness of public parks. Whole families felt safe doing so, escaping their sweltering rowhouses with cots and linens.

Home air conditioners have been common in Maryland for about 40 years -- enough time to lose many traditions of keeping cool. Local amusement parks and once plentiful Chesapeake Bay beach resorts are long gone. So are sleeping porches and colorful awnings that kept the sun from scorching living spaces.

In 1904, the air conditioning of the New York Stock Exchange was an early breakthrough of mechanical ventilation. "Man-made weather" quickly spread to the movie palaces of the 1910s and '20s, which often had marquees decorated with icicles and signs claiming, "Twenty degrees colder inside!" For decades afterward, though, the most many homeowners could afford was a powerful fan.

The popularity of central air conditioning in the 1960s and 1970s changed Baltimore. Waterfront neighborhoods, including Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill, which previously had been intolerably hot and humid, became attractive for upscale residents. With climate control, though, some cherished local customs suffered. Among them were open-air crab houses, which started to disappear as patrons chose to eat crustaceans in air-conditioned comfort.

But summer traditions persist. Like eating snowballs. That may not beat the heat, but it sure provides cool, temporary relief.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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