Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Vent Elation

Cooler Summers Carrier Ad/tiles/non-collection/7/7-8-text-Cooler-Summers-2006_107_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
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This Carrier advertisement crowed about the relief air conditioning had brought to “perspiring, heat-weary Congressmen.”
“No good legislation comes out of Washington after June.” Speaker of the House John Nance Garner spent 30 years in Congress, and he knew to get out of town ahead of the wilting summer weather. Washington in July and August is a desperately swampy place. Then one day in 1928, “manufactured weather” arrived in the House of Representatives’ Chamber.

By the time this wondrous new weather, better known today as air conditioning, came to the House, politicians had been complaining about Washington’s heat since the moment the capital was established there. To alleviate some of the swelter, light summer fabrics covered the furniture, rush matting replaced heavy wool carpets, and Members wore white suits and straw hats. It was all to no avail. When required to stay into the summer months one year, there was considerable unhappiness in Congress. And with good reason. The House Chamber was windowless, airless, and so oppressive that an official reporter collapsed from the heat one year. The advent of the automobile in the 1910s sent Representatives on all-night countryside drives at top speeds, just to feel a breeze.

Close of the First Session of the 75th Congress/tiles/non-collection/7/7-8-text-summer-suits-2006_208_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
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Representatives in their summer suits fairly sprinted down the Capitol’s steps when the August recess began.
By 1928, Members of Congress were genuinely concerned about their ability to work under such conditions. Several Representatives announced that 202 of their colleagues had died in office in the previous 35 years, and suggested unhealthful air in the House Chamber as a contributing cause. A study of the Capitol’s ventilation was commissioned and recommended air conditioning the chamber. The House jumped at the prospect. In May a call went out for a new system, and within months the Carrier Corporation had designed and installed its “Manufactured Weather,” with air that would “guard the Health, assure the Comfort and inspire the Achievement of the Nation’s representatives.”

The great air conditioning project of 1928 was a huge success. The House announced that the system collected 500 pounds of dust and dirt in its first three months. That heap of pollution confirmed in many minds that air conditioning was the healthy way to go. The Senate quickly followed the House’s lead, and the two legislative chambers became the most comfortable spots in the Capitol (although the Senate had to post notices to assure its more timid members that there was nothing to be frightened of.)

House Chamber in Summer/tiles/non-collection/7/7-8-text-summer-chamber-2008_080_003pq.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
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In April 1928, Members gathered in the crowded, windowless House Chamber little realized they would enjoy the benefits of air conditioning by the year's end.
The Carrier Corporation, giddy with success, predicted that air conditioning might “have a profound effect upon our governmental system! Congress may voluntarily remain in session throughout the summer, in order that our Congressmen may be protected from the intolerable discomforts and dangers of the ordinary outdoor weather!” Congress did sit longer into the summer, and legislating became a year-round endeavor, although this was attributable as much to the twin crises of economic collapse and global conflict in the 1930s as to cooler spaces. A partial summer recess, however, was still sacrosanct. Through June and July, Representatives anticipated the August break from the sweltering heat. When it finally arrived, Members greeted the recess with cheers and singing, and ran for the doors, headed home to see constituents and families.

Sources: Richard A. Baker, 200 Notable Days: Senate Stories, 1878 to 2002 (Washington: GPO, 2006); Annual Report of the Architect of the Capitol (Washington: GPO, 1929); William Allen, History of the United States Capitol (Washington: GPO, 2002); Washington Post, July 15, 1929.