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Since time immemorial, humanity has always sought ways to beat the heat or stay cool in the hot summer months. Whether hiding in cool caves or sitting next to a roaring fire, people have always wanted to take part in actively regulating the temperature around them.

The modern era has unprecedented control of the temperature around them, even to the point where incredibly affluent cities have the ability to have outdoor air-conditioned pedestrian walkways. However, things were not always so easy when it comes to temperature regulation, and those living in the 18th century had to take a much different approach.

Shifting Climate

Today the world is experiencing record temperatures due to the continued effects of climate change. Our understanding of climate change and how it will affect us has increased dramatically in even the last two decades. Aside from an increased number of extreme heat events, climate change is expected to damage public health in the form of higher instances of insect-related diseases, more violent and frequent natural disasters, and overall poor air quality.


While it can be easy to assume that acknowledgment of climate change is largely due to human interference is a modern idea, this isn’t true. Even in the 18th-century famed French writer and philosopher, Voltaire was beginning to make the observations that while humanity is certainly shaped by the climates it inhabits, it in turn shaped and affects the climate itself. However, the understanding of just how damaging humanity can be to the environment was not yet known and so there was little in the way of environmental protection.


Instead, the name of the game in the 18th century was survival. Whether braving harsh winters or scorching summers, many living in the era were living in isolation from the rest of the civilized world and did whatever they could to stay alive. Today, there is a bevy of rules pertaining to when you can light a fire, how large it is allowed to be, and what wood can be used. In the 18th century, people were less concerned about starting a forest fire as they were about not freezing to death.

Similar Problems, Different Solutions

Believe it or not, HVAC systems are not nearly as modern as people might think. In fact, people living in more affluent or urban areas didn’t have to rely solely on open fires in their hearths or stiff breezes and open windows to regulate the temperature within their homes. The 18th century saw a whole host of novel solutions for temperature control, from Benjamin Franklin’s “Pennsylvania Stove” to primitive air-conditioning systems that utilized compressed and liquified ammonia to cool an area, setting the stage for modern HVAC systems.


In cities where populations were dense and housing was built from sub-par materials, damp and humidity were huge issues. Poor ventilation combined with high levels of humidity in urban areas saw a huge amount of toxic mold spores being produced which caused public health issues. The best solution was to simply start a fire and hope that it drew the moisture out of the room, while homes in the countryside were better off being built out of stone and chalk which are far more absorbent and could handle a higher amount of humidity than urban dwellings that were constructed largely from wood.


Today, managing humidity levels in the home is an incredibly simple task. Dehumidifiers can be installed directly into modern HVAC systems which can efficiently suck as much moisture out of the air as needed. While areas where high levels of humidity are to be expected, such as the bathroom or the kitchen, should be aired out after use to avoid the development of black mold or moisture-loving bacteria, overall the modern era has unprecedented control over humidity and temperature.

Efficiency Is Now King

In the 18th century, efficiency was not regularly considered when attempting to regulate heat within a home. While advancements in heating technology like improved stove designs sought to increase how well the stove itself worked, little was done inside of a home to keep the heat in. Drafty houses and fireplaces that brought in the cold air as they heated a room meant that in order to keep a house warm, people needed an extensive wood supply with some homes burning up to an acre of woodlot in a year.


The heat of 18th-century homes was regularly lost to inefficiencies. Homes usually had little to no insulation and doors and windows were often ill-fitting, allowing colder air to enter a home as the hot air escaped. Electricity did not see wide use until the 19th century, so people living in the 18th century relied exclusively on flames not only for heat but light as well. This meant that in the summer months, lamps and candles could potentially heat a room up significantly if a source of light was needed.


Today, however, efficiency is essential. This is largely due to the fact that, while we no longer have to burn cords of wood to keep our houses warm, we do have to pay power bills that can quickly get out of hand in the hot summer months or through the bitter winter. People are now always looking for ways to increase efficiency in their apartments and homes, from using portable fans instead of costly AC units to the strategic use of curtains in order to keep their homes as cool as possible throughout the day.


The 18th century saw many of the same problems that we do today, the people living in the era just approached them differently. Heating, cooling, and humidity control were all still important and they had ways of dealing with them, but their understanding of what causes extreme weather and why efficiency is vital was far less than exists today.


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About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho, and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.