I HAVE been thinking about air conditioning the house, not as one who is going to do something expensive at once, but as one who has done it. The bills are all paid. Summer or winter the house has the same satisfactory temperature, neither too warm nor too cold, but just right for me; and the air is purer than that on a mountain top. When I remember how I used to open a window to ’let in fresh air’ I both smile and shudder to think of all the undesirable invisible things I let in with it. The machinery is automatic; it works like nature, only so very much better. Out of doors the wind bloweth where it listeth and the air is invisibly laden with organisms that we nowknow to be germs and our superstitious ancestors thought to be demons. When a superstitious ancestor sneezed he considered it reasonable evidence that a demon had got inside of him; and the maternal policy of a well-known Duchess, —
And beat him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases, —
may, indeed, have been an unwitting exorcism, inherited from superstitious ancestry and camouflaged by commonplace explanation. I do not like to sneeze, myself.
Like germs, air conditioning is in the air, though it is not yet in every house. The writer of an article in my newspaper heralds it as the next great American industry, lifting the curse of unemployment by employing everybody not otherwise employed. ‘ The universal acceptance of air cooling in summer,’ he writes, ‘automatically summons to the mind a picture of deserted bathing beaches, empty amusement parks, and, most important, empty highways on a Sunday afternoon. People will always stay indoors in comfort. The spectacle of deserted streets and a population that will remain perpetually indoors might frighten the back-to-nature enthusiasts and deliver a death blow to nudism. . . . With air conditioning on every hand, it is inevitable that sometime in the near future all our homes will be equipped.’
But why a death blow to nudism? It seems to me it would be an encouragement.
The picture, I think, asks too much of the New Deal. Many of our homes, even in these United States at the peak of former prosperity, were unable to afford such helpful domestic improvement as great industries were more than willing to provide on easy payments. When winter came, many men shoveled coal into furnaces; when summer followed, it was no uncommon sight to see the iceman considerately sweeping a little chunk of ice with a whisk broom before laboriously lugging it into a house. Many of our homes were still lighted with candles or kerosene; many had no garage; some — believe it or not — had no automobile. It is comforting to realize that practically all were, and still seem to be, managing to keep up their supply of cigarettes.
This is not to deny that air conditioning will be the next great industry; and a great industry can do much to affect the character of a civilization. Something has been done already. Motion-picture palaces are being air conditioned, limiting germs to those that come in with the customers. There are railway trains on which no germ can travel without a ticket. Glass has been made pervious to the health-giving ultra-violet rays of the sun. I have a sun lamp myself. I bought it last winter for the library, thinking to read and bask simultaneously; but it has almost invariably happened that I have hardly settled down with my book for a long sunny winter evening when my wife has knocked softly on the locked door and whispered (in effect) through the keyhole that we have company.
Nor do I see why the highways would be empty on Sunday. A man with an airconditioned house will have an air-conditioned car and can still enjoy seeing the scenery and pictures. One of these, I am sure, will be of a Brobdingnagian and lovely girl sitting innocently beside an open window through which a greenish, goggle-eyed monster is crawling expectantly: SHE CANNOT SEE IT, BUT IT IS GETTING IN.
My dictionary defines nature as ‘the sum of physical or material existences or forces, regarded as exclusive of man,’ thus recognizing that she (as we commonly call her) behaves as if man had no existence whatever. Very primitive men, as I read the professors, took nature for granted; they were, and so was everything else. ‘Face to face with nature,’ says Professor Julius Lippert (Die Kulturgeschichte in einzelnen Hauptstücken), ‘the only conclusion to be drawn from this fact was to endeavor to maintain life. The care for life intervenes without speculation.’ So, without thinking about it at all, his first rude habitation was a protection against drafts. Later, when men less primitive began to speculate about unpleasant things that happened to them for no observable reason, it is no wonder to me that they attributed such occurrences to demons, invisible, but otherwise a good deal like themselves at their worst. These they tried to shoo off by exorcisms; and it has naturally taken time and experimentation to find out that what they were trying to do with a priest can be done better with a filter.
But, as I have already hinted, one must not expect too much of the air-conditioned house. Our experience with the insects shows that, however carefully a house is screened, a fly, mosquito, midget, or even so large an invader as a moth, bee, or wasp, will occasionally get in. More than once have I settled myself for sleep in a thoroughly screened house — and then, at first drowsily, but soon wide awake and alert, I have heard a faint buz-z-z-z-z, increasing in volume, dying away to silence, now in my ear and again over by the bureau. Then, of course, there is nothing to do but get up. It is worse than useless to pretend sleep, closing the eyes, breathing like a sleeper, and all the time waiting with tense muscles and an open hand for the little devil to light. You will but slap yourself. The only thing to do is to get up, turn on all the lights, arm yourself with patience and a folded newspaper, and go after the little devil yourself. It will be the same way with germs, except that you cannot hear a germ and go after it with a newspaper. One can, in fact, neither see them, hear them, nor feel them. The customary behavior of a man with a germ — and this, I imagine, was the attitude of our ancestors toward what they believed were demons — is to let it alone so long as it will let him alone.
But he can feel temperature, and is rarely, and never for long, satisfied with that which indifferent nature is just then providing. Here the air-conditioned house will really come in handy. Already, to be sure, oil-heater man (as some readers may have contrasted him at once with coalshoveling man) achieves much in winter. He sits in his cushioned chair, smoking his cigarette and reading his Atlantic Monthly, while a thermostat, so I understand, keeps the temperature at, say, 70 degrees, unless some member of the family, who prefers 69, monkeys with it. That possibility seems the only fly in his ointment, and can be expeditiously removed with no more labor than is necessary to change the position of a pointer on a dial. He can do it with his little finger. But spring is coming; and then summer, when the only place in the house with a controlled and equable temperature will be the electric refrigerator. Winter or summer, of course, he is being exposed to germs; but the compelling argument of the new great industry will be ‘ Why treat the vegetables better than yourself and your loved ones?’
The question rises: What will be the effect of air conditioning on the race? ‘According to scientific research,’ says the writer of the article in my newspaper, ‘it would take several generations before the biological structure of the human body showed any disastrous effects of the easy life, but eventually the world would be filled with softies.’ I am not much worried about that. As I have, I think, indicated, the air-conditioned house is unlikely to become universal; nor do I believe that people living in such houses would never, if they could help it, go out of doors. There would be some exceptions, as there would be some surviving germs, each group helping to perpetuate the other, but in the larger view not enough to make very much difference. Ever since he made the first great discovery that fire will burn stick, man has been adapting himself to changes of temperature as he went out or came in, and is still at his hardiest about as hardy as ever. Professor Lippert agrees with me. ‘Man,’ he says, evidently referring to his biological structure, for he has otherwise somewhat noticeably changed, ‘whose first traces are found in Europe among the fossils of the Pleistocene Period along with extinct species of the mammoth and rhinoceros at a time when the arctic glaciers joined those of the Alps, was then already much the same as he is to-day.’ So much for our biological structure; and there are only a few of us, an inappreciable number, who agree with the poet Cotton that
From our own selves our joys must flow,
And that dear hut, our home.
Even if we air conditioned the dear hut, we must be out and about.