Norfolk has had its share of alarmingly hot and humid days these past few months. Our attic space has reached unfathomable temperatures during these dog days of summer, and I am sure many of your homes have as well. While many of us escape baking in an outdoor furnace by using man’s greatest invention, air conditioning, the Victorians did not have such a luxury, at least not as we know it today. This train of thought had the museum staff wondering- what methods did the Victorians use to keep cool in the summer? Did they beg the ice man to chop off bigger blocks when he came by? Did they bulk up their arm muscles by furiously and repeatedly swatting at the air with a fan? Or, did they prefer to lose the clothing and take a dip, maybe even a skinny one, at a nearby watering hole? In a quest for answers, our summer intern Kimberly Vera set herself to the task of researching the topic. Keep reading to see what she found!
In the Hunter House Victorian Museum, we have a variety of items that the Hunter family would have used in the summer to cool down. From the tilting ice water pitcher in the dining room, to the bathing suit on display in the upstairs bathroom, the Hunters did have different ways to keep cool in the hot southern summers. However, there are also multiple others ways that Victorians survived the sweltering summers.
Victorian houses were often built with covered porches, awnings, and high ceilings. Other household features that would be implemented during the summer include keeping the house dark during the day and keeping the windows open, using heavy curtains, and cooking primarily in outdoor kitchens. Another feature that was unique to this era was the icebox and ice delivery, which was used mostly by upper class families and doubled as a sign of their wealth.
While most people believe that Victorian women were suffering during the summer months because of their long dresses and tightly-laced corsets, Victorian women had their own clever ways of staying cool. Instead of wearing the multiple, heavier layers that were more commonly worn in the winter, they would switch to lighter and lesser layers such as linen and cotton. They would also use parasols, hats and fans to complete their outfits. Women also drank and ate iced and chilled beverages and treats to keep from overheating.
(Image: Victorian postcard depicting ladies lounging by the sea)
Other ways Victorians might have tried to keep cool in the summer were by visiting gardens and parks, where there would be shade from the trees, and possibly even cool breezes rolling through. Victorian park cemeteries, such as Elmwood Cemetery in Norfolk, would offer a beautiful park-like atmosphere where families could gather for the day under shady trees. Another outdoor location that offered a temporary escape from the heat was going to the beach. Beach-goers could relax and stay cool by basking in the sea breeze or taking a dip into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. While somewhat counter intuitive, sometimes the outdoors offered the best escape from the muggy heat inside a Victorian home.
So, while many people may think that the Victorians might have had a hard time during the summer, they found ways to keep cool and stay relaxed, even without air conditioning.