The 5 most bizarre ways people used to keep cool. Including gin baths!
It used to be that if you wanted to be cool, you couldn’t just flick on an air-conditioning switch. When heat was a way of life, people had practical ways to stay cool. But they also had other strategies that were bizarre, probably ineffective, and in many cases, just plain weird. These items are proof that the heat really can drive you crazy.
1. William Jennings Bryan doused himself with gin
How do you stay cool if you’re teetotaling perennial Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan? You pour gin on your chest.
Bryan was famous for not drinking—he even refused to serve wine to visiting diplomats, which made people accuse him of “grape juice diplomacy.” But Bryan still carried around a litte gin in the 1890s.
According to Paul F. Boller’s book about Presidential campaigns, Bryan’s many campaign stops soaked his clothes with sweat. He solved the problem of smell by dousing his body and his clothes in gin—which made him smell like “a wrecked distillery.”
2. Wear a wicker skeleton
An 1890 report from Washington, DC reported at least one bizarre invention: a wicker skeleton for men.
What does that mean? Basically, it was a bustle for men. The reporter described it as an innovation brought from Asia by a Korean ambassador. He wore a wicker casing around his arms and body and draped his shirt and pants over it. That way he kept the clothes away from his skin and stayed cool.
The report is full of 1890s wonder at exotic Asian practices, including water feasts, painted fans, and more. But the idea of a wicker support system is something we’d like to see tried today.
3. Take hot baths so you’ll be happy you aren’t taking a hot bath
There’s some science that suggests drinking hot liquids can cool you down in desert climates. There’s debate over whether a hot bath could do the same.
It’s the reasoning, however, that makes this advice from 1902 so unusual:
You will also be told that it is best to drink hot drinks and take hot baths, for the reason that the warmer the body the cooler will seem the atmosphere.
The logic: get hotter so the heat doesn’t seem so bad.
4. Stay away from fans, because they will ruin you for the real world
Actress Marie George had similar logic: it’s best not to realize how miserable you are.
She took to society pages in a 1901 column about her techniques for staying cool. Most of her advice is reasonable, like abstaining from drinking, avoiding exertion, and wearing light clothes. But she also warned against electric fans:
I don’t like electric fans. They are cooling temporarily, but they cool one so rapidly that the heat is felt a good deal more when the fan is left behind.
For Marie George, it was best not to know what you were missing.
5. Just…stay positive
Want to know how difficult it used to be to stay cool? Some of the best advice was to stay optimistic. It was a waste of effort to get “all het [sic] up over things” in extreme heat.
In fact, the Washington Herald in 1910 had an entire Optimist’s Club feature committed to staying cool. The big idea? Think positive, don’t get mad, and try not to think about the heat. Their call to action was suitably positive (though oddly punctuated).
When the thermometer goes up; good spirits should go up with it. Keeping cheerful and good natured, are wonderful helps. Fighting the heat is very bad; you should simply let it do its worst and calmly ignore it. The man or woman who pursues the even tenor or his or her way, is doing a great deal toward “keeping cool.”
Is it good advice? Definitely! But it’s not the best to read when you’re sweating over a newspaper.
Still, we suggest you think about it if your laptop or tablet starts heating up while the AC blasts.