Air cooling with commercial ice dates back to approximately 1910, when ice could be purchased for as little as four dollars a ton.
TO COMBAT HOUSTON’S STIFLING SUMMER HEAT BEFORE THE INTRODUCTION OF AIR CONDITIONING AS WE KNOW IT TODAY, EARLY SETTLERS IN THE AREA RELIED ON CREATIVE ARCHITECTURE AND ICE TO COOL THEIR HOMES. In the nineteenth century, homes were built with thick walls and multiple doors to create a system of cross-ventilation, first introduced to the area by the Mexican and the Spanish. At night the doors were opened, permitting a flow of air through the rooms. This lowered the temperature of the entire home, which was then closed up again at sunup in an attempt to trap the cooler air inside. For the night sleeping hours, while the house was cooling for the next day, the homeowner and his family sometimes slept out-of-doors, where they could obtain the benefit of natural night cooling.
Air cooling with commercial ice dates back to approximately 1910, when ice could be purchased for as little as four dollars a ton. At first the 300- pound blocks of ice were placed in a vault inside the home or building through which a fan blew air into an outlet duct and then on to the space to be cooled. By 1920 the ice had been placed in an enclosed pool and the resulting ice water circulated to fan radiators in order to cool rooms, auditoriums, and restaurants.
The success of these cooling systems was limited, however, and Houston residents sought alternative ways to cool down. Local swimming pools and ice cream parlors were popular ways to combat the summer heat. Strolls through shaded parks were a common activity for Houstonians well into the early twentieth century.
The first refrigerated air-cooled building in the Houston area was the Rice Hotel cafeteria, air-conditioned in 1922. Movie theaters were early adapters of air conditioning. Will Horwitz installed air conditioning in his Texan Theater downtown in 1926, earlier than many other movie houses in the south. Soon, wealthier Houstonians were installing air conditioning in their homes, and in 1938 the Houston Chamber of Commerce boasted 427 air-conditioning units across the city.
By 1940 Texas had become a national manufacturing center for air-cooling machines and inventions, and the air-conditioning industry began to develop units for automobiles as well. By the 1950s, almost all Houston buildings were constructed with cooling systems, and modern architecture began to reflect this. Porches, high ceilings, and breezeways were no longer needed to help cool the space. In 1965 the Houston Astrodome attracted global attention as the first air-conditioned sports stadium in the world.
Today, few Houstonians could imagine living without the manufactured comfort of cool homes, cars, and buildings. It’s no surprise that Houston touts itself as the “air-conditioning capital of the world.”
Reprinted from the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Houston, a project in cooperation with the Houston History Alliance. For more information, visit www.HoustonHistoryAlliance.org.