How to beat the summer heat in a pre-AC world.

Photo: Laurey W. Glenn; Styling: Buffy Hargett Miller

At the peak of summer in the South, there is no possession more valuable than an air conditioner. On those days when the thermometer hits 90 before 10 a.m., you probably think to yourself, How in the world did folks survive before air conditioning?! Survive they did, as air conditioning was not common in homes until after World War II—which meant the house could actually be one of the most stifling places to be if it lacked adequate cross-ventilation.

And while you could escape to a body of water or a well-shaded park during the day, sleeping inside at night could be downright miserable. This is why many Victorian-era and early 20th-century homes have what’s known as a sleeping porch.

The sleeping porch was an enclosed deck or balcony with screened windows—typically accessible via one of the second- or third-story bedrooms and located on a corner of the house to catch as much cross-breeze possible. Even better, they might stretch the whole length of the back of the house to have three sides exposed to cooler nighttime breezes. The whole family (but especially the children) would all take refuge on the sleeping porch, spending those balmy summer nights on cots or mattresses.

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Folks of this era saw another added benefit to sleeping “outside”: bolstering their immune system. Tuberculosis was one of the leading causes of death at the time, and doctors recommended getting plenty of fresh air to stave off the respiratory disease.

In the decades since most of these homes became modernized with central AC, many homeowners have fully enclosed sleeping porches to turn them into year-round sunrooms, or to enlarge an existing bedroom or bathroom. Even if we are blessed enough to live in the era of air conditioning, we still like the old-fashioned idea of cozying up on a screened-in porch, with the sound of cicadas lulling us to sleep—even if it’s just for an afternoon nap.

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