Have you ever stopped to think how much daily life has changed since, oh, the local courthouse was built? Waiting for an inspiration the other day, I was idly looking out my office window and noticed a guy walking down the sidewalk wearing a golf shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. Can you imagine seeing a man dressed that casually in, say, 1890 or 1900? It would never have happened. But, come to think of it, I have seen some historic photographs of a typical street scene from about that time period.
I remember one old black and white photo that was a downtown street scene. Nearly every store had a retractable awning to shield it from the summer sun – the photo was obviously taken during the summer because all the trees in the background were covered with leaves. Most of the people were standing looking up at the photographer who had to have been in a second-story window. But here’s the most notable thing about that picture, taken so long ago – it was how the people were dressed! All the men appeared to be in three-piece suits, high celluloid collars, wide ties, and nearly every man was wearing a type of hat called a “bowler.” The bowler hat is said to have been designed in 1849 by the London hat-makers Thomas and William Bowler. It’s a hard felt hat with a rounded crown and narrow brim all the way around. It’s the style of hat worn by the character George Banks in the popular 1964 movie “Mary Poppins.” The few women in the photo had on long-sleeve, high collared dresses with street length full skirts. Most of them were also carrying parasols, (small umbrellas), to shade them from the sun.
Can you even imagine how hot those clothing styles must have been? But there would have been no real choice about how proper ladies and gentlemen dressed, even in small town America around the turn of the last century – let alone how hot their shops and offices must have been?
I have seen other photos that show the inside of some of those shops with the awnings. The shop owners were in long sleeve shirts with buttoned collars, suspenders, and sleeve holders. Sometime called “sleeve garters,” sleeve holders were popular around the last half of the last century when men’s ready-made shirts came in a single (extra-long) sleeve length. “Sleeve holders” allowed men to customize their sleeve lengths and keep their cuffs from becoming soiled while working or at the correct length when worn under a jacket. The point is, it was acceptable for men to at least take off their jackets when working in a shop of some sort. Sales ladies appear to have been wearing long dresses with large puffy sleeves and long white aprons while working in dress shops and similar establishments that carried merchandise for women.
While all this looks very quaint, it’s important to remember that air conditioning didn’t exist. The most people could hope for in the summertime was a screen door and a breeze. The same was true for offices located in the central business district. Lawyers’ offices must have been sweltering places in which to work in those days, as would have been doctors’ offices, banks, insurance companies and any other type of businesses where people spent most of their time working at a desk. The only hope would have been to have windows with screens to keep out the flies. One can only imagine how many flies, for instance, managed to get into restaurants, sandwich shops, and other places where food could be purchased.
Conditions weren’t much different at home. No one had air conditioning in 1900, so homes got hot during the summer just like places of business. The solution was the same – put up the windows and put in the screens. Around that time, people spent more time sitting on the porch in the evening after the sun had set and the temperature became more comfortable. When I was a kid we didn’t have home air conditioning and I don’t remember complaining about the heat – because, I suppose, I didn’t know any better. The first air conditioned business that I remember was a local drug store. Not long after that, the local movie theater started sporting a banner that read “Air Conditioned.” The movies quickly became a very popular attraction on a hot summer afternoon!
Wherever people gathered usually turned uncomfortably hot. Most churches, for example, weren’t air conditioned. That’s why a local mortuary usually made hand-held fans available to all the churches. Pity the poor priest or minister wearing a long heavy robe on summer Sundays! Parishioners also normally dressed up for church with men in suits and women in long gloves and wide-brimmed hats. All of them with nothing more than a hand-held fan to at least create a breeze!
When air conditioning became popular in the 1950s, just half a century after the three piece suits, long mutton-legged sleeves and parasols, daily life changed dramatically. Styles of dress became gradually less formal. Young people today can’t imagine what life was like just a century ago and, still, not everyone has air conditioning today. But fashions for both men and women have changed a great deal. In 1900 somebody wearing shorts, an open-collared golf shirt, and a pair of flip-flops would probably have been arrested for public indecency!
That’s –30—for this week.