Great Moments in HVAC History: Air Conditioning and the New South

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When Willis Carrier invented the modern air conditioner in 1902. No one could have predicted how the development of air conditioning would change the course of history. The spread of air conditioning technology around the world has had far-reaching impacts on a global scale. But right here at home, air conditioning has shaped our population, our economy, and our culture. It creates the New South that we live in today.

Air Conditioning Comes to the South

Air conditioning took its time getting to the South. In the 1920s early air conditioning systems began to be a popular feature in American movie theaters. Even so, many rural Southern homes didn’t even have electricity yet!

In his article “The End of the Long Hot Summer,” historian Raymond Arsenault explains that when air conditioning first appeared in the South, it was used almost exclusively in industrial buildings. Businesses such as cotton mills and tobacco warehouses primarily used it.  The AC’s primary purpose was to keep moisture under control, not keep people comfortable.

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It was at the movie theaters in the South that air conditioning for the purpose of comfort first took off. Next came the railways in the 1930s.

From the 30s into the 1940s, according to Arsenault, air conditioning began to be found in some small shops and restaurants in the South, as well as larger department stores in the cities. Hotels, banks, and hospitals also began installing air conditioning.

But very few Southern homes had air conditioning prior to World War II. Arsenault explains that it wasn’t until the early 1950s that efficient and inexpensive window units hit the market. This is when residential air conditioning in the South really took off.

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By 1960, central air conditioning had begun to appear in some of the region’s wealthiest neighborhoods. In that year, approximately 18% of all Southern homes had some form of air conditioning. Alabama was slightly behind the average, at 16.7%.

Just one decade later, in 1970, residential air conditioning had become far more common.  Just over fifty percent of Southern households could boast that they had it. And by 1980, that number climbed to 73%. According to the 2015 American Housing Survey, today 97% of Southern households have some form of air conditioning.

Air conditioning slowly became part of regular life in the South, starting in the early 20th century and becoming more and more common as time went on.

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Air Conditioning and Changing Populations

As Arsenault points out, the spread of air conditioning in the South coincides with rapid population growth in the region. From 1930 to the early 1980s, the population density of the South actually doubled.

Looking at the entire Sunbelt, which includes both the Southeastern and Southwestern U.S., also shows how air conditioning has impacted population. According to an article in The Atlantic, “Keepin’ It Cool: How the Air Conditioner Made Modern America,” as of 1950, twenty-eight percent of the US population lived in the Sunbelt. But thanks to much higher-than-average population growth, as of 2000, forty percent of Americans live in those hot regions.

Arsenault explains that the major reason for this increase is migration. In other words, air conditioning made the South a more attractive place for people to live and work. Prior to 1950, people were leaving the South by the millions. But by the 1960s, the number of people moving into the South was actually greater than the number moving out.

In addition to increasing migration into the South, air conditioning also helped grow the population in another way—by keeping people healthy and living longer. Before air conditioning, according to Arsenault, the mortality rate in the South was much higher than the rest of the country.

But over the course of the 20th century, the South’s mortality rate got closer and closer to the national average. Air conditioning has helped decrease the infant mortality rate, increase the lifespans of people with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and decrease the spread of diseases carried by mosquitos. It has literally saved millions of lives!

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The New South

As the century went on and air conditioning became more common, even more people and businesses moved into the South from other parts of the country. This affected Southern culture and the economy, helping to build the New South we know and love today.

Thanks to air conditioning, people from all over the country moved to the South, bringing their diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures with them. As a result, the South became less isolated and more connected with the rest of America.

Businesses came to the South as a result of air conditioning as well. Studies from the U.S. and all over the world have found what plenty of Southerners already knew—heat decreases worker productivity, while air conditioning increases it.

With the advent of air conditioning, companies no longer needed to fear that Southern factories would essentially shut down in the summer. This led to the industrialization of the South—the big shift from an agriculturally based economy to one driven by manufacturing and commercial businesses.

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As a result of all these new, modern jobs, the per capita income of the South grew rapidly. According to Arsenault, in 1930, the per capita income in the South was only 52% of the national average. But by the early 1980s, that had jumped to 90%.

Ultimately, all these changes—a growing population, increasing industrialization—led to another big change that’s a key element of the New South. More people in the South today live in cities than ever before. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, today 10 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in America are located in the South.

And now you know—it’s all thanks to air conditioning!

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