Heat Wiser

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art in August 1973. Photograph by Dick Swanson/The National Archive

Summertime and the livin’ ain’t always easy!

Contrary to what Porgy and Bess tells us, summer times are hotter than they were as recently as 50 years ago. As the planet heats up, the climate is changing. That affects our lives in dramatic and subtle ways.

One of the most obvious measures is rising temperatures. In light of those facts, I asked some women of SOWN (Supportive Older Women’s Network) to share ways in which they used to beat the heat. Some methods never change.

Group members and staff remember putting a bowl of ice in front of a window fan. If the house began to feel too closed-in, there was always a movie theater with air conditioning. You could be cool and keep your distance from other patrons who were seeking the same relief. All the better if it was a double feature.

Backyard plastic swimming pools were pulled out and filled up. In some neighborhoods, these mini-pools weren’t limited to the backyard. They were set out in the front of the house where young children splashed and older people sat in chairs with their feet in the water.

With front-stoop pools, open fire hydrants delivered a dynamic spray of cold water to shrieking children of any age. There have been periods when a city worker could open a hydrant legally and equip it with a sprinkler attachment to disperse the spray. Currently, it is illegal and considered unsafe to open a hydrant. Forceful, gushing water has caused serious injuries, property damage, and rendered the hydrant useless.

Less dramatic but as effective, Belinda remembered her mother putting on the hose.

In 1883, the City of Philadelphia opened the country’s first outdoor public swimming pool. Now, in 2022, seventy-four neighborhood pools offer a reprieve from the heat. With 4.8 public pools per 100,000 residents, Philly has one of the largest networks of public pools in the United States.

Despite the plethora of pools in Philadelphia, generations of Black and brown folks cannot swim because they were excluded from using pools and, therefore, taking swimming lessons. An incident of exclusion and outright discrimination at a suburban private pool was reported as recently as 2009.

But, there were and always will be day trips to the beach – ‘goin’ down the shore.’ Church groups, summer camps, families, and individuals enjoyed easily-accessed beaches in Atlantic City or Wildwood or Cape May – each beach with its own personality. One grandmother remembered going to Myrtle Beach with her grandmother.

Other public spaces offered relief – to varying degrees – from the heat. Libraries and specific locations are designated as ‘cooling centers’ during periods of excessive heat and humidity. With extended hours, they’re open to ensure comfort and safety for vulnerable populations – older and elderly people and those who cannot afford an air conditioner.

Emma recalls that her church “used to have two huge fans that were very loud, and although it didn’t really cool [us] off, it provided some relief and was better than nothing.”

Cooling off externally feels good.  Cooling off internally can taste good. For example, lemonade “with mint leaves!” Women remembered making frozen treats with Kool-aid, but Sarah went a step further. She had a small business selling frozen Kool-aid treats – Chilly Bears – in three sizes, 1 cent, 3 cents and 5 cents.

Photo by Michael Alan Bailey on Unsplash

“. . . a real treat to sleep outside in the summer, and sometimes it didn’t get cooler at night until around 2 AM, but when [I] would sleep on the porch it was so much nicer than being indoors.”

The writer of this article added “my mother’s strategy”:

We lived about 30 miles north of New York City. Our house was built in 1922 and had large deciduous trees in the front yard. Those are gone now, due to disease and age. In the 1960s, Mom keep windows open at night, closed during the day, and covered with sheets to hold the cool in and the heat out. With the blessings of the shade, we progressed through the summer in relative comfort.

These recollections offer different ways to beat the heat in 2022. Perhaps they spark memories that make you smile or sigh. In either case, stay in the shade, drink lots of water throughout the day, and share your memories with others.

ABOUT SOWN The Supportive Older Womens Network serves grandparent-headed families, caregivers for loved ones, and vulnerable older adults in the Greater Philadelphia region. A grassroots news partner with WHYY/N.I.C.E.
4100 Main St. Suite 403, Philadelphia (MAP LINK)
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This column was written by Jill Gates Smith, Outreach/Administrative Coordinator for SOWN. Read last month’s column here 

About SOWN 17 Articles
SOWN strengthens community support networks, reduces social isolation, and improves the well-being of older adults, especially women and their families. It offers a number of resources, including peer counseling groups by phone and in person, individual counseling, educational workshops, and resource referrals.

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