How New Yorkers survived hot summer nights

The city in July and August is supposed to be insanely hot and sticky. And when an oppressive heat wave strikes, New Yorkers suffer, sweat, and ask the same question: How did city residents handle it years ago without air conditioning or even fans? 

FireescapesleepingWell, there was always the fire escape. It looks like a ridiculously dangerous place to sleep in this 1938 Weegee photo, but it must have been better than baking in a tenement bedroom.

You could also spend the night in a park, on the street, or sprawled out on the beach, as thousands did.

“In Central Park the lawns were crowded before darkness with family groups,” reported the July 10, 1936 New York Times; the temperature had reached an astounding 106 degrees the day before. “On the Lower East Side traffic was seriously impeded as small armies of persons emerged from tenement houses with chairs, boxes and even beds which they set up in the streets.”

And from the Times on August 4, 1938, when the mercury hit 93 degrees:

“More than 3,000 persons slept on the sand at Coney Island and Brighton Beach to escape the heat last night, the police estimated. Ten additional patrolmen were assigned to the area to prevent molestation of the sleepers, many of whom brought blankets and sheets.” 

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23 Responses to “How New Yorkers survived hot summer nights”

  1. Blue Says:

    You have the most interesting blog and I read it every day. Are you a historian or just someone who loves the city he lives in, or both?

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Thank you! Just endlessly fascinated by the city.

  3. terry Says:

    yeah same here, rss subscription. Love these snapshots into old NYC life.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks. I like this photo a lot; there’s something so tender about it. No Hamptons beach vacation for these kids.

  5. Now Pinch-Hitting, Jay-Z - City Room Blog - Says:

    […] some choose to refrain from using their air-conditioners, even during sticky summer nights, New Yorkers had to sleep under the stars to beat the heat before it was invented. [Ephemeral New […]

  6. Passerby Says:

    I love this photo very much. It seems rather staged, but does give a good impression of things. I think I’m very much charmed — even fascinated — by the young girl’s exposed nipple, even as she cradles what appears to be a kitten! What a powerful image, tenderly sexual, suggesting that sultry summer nights can be spiritually refreshing nonetheless. The image also reminds me of our animal nakedness as human beings, especially with all these young ones huddled together like hamsters in a cage, regardless of sex or age. Yes, it’s all very touching. What are states of undress when it comes to the elements? Anais Nin’s short “Mallorca” also springs to mind….

  7. Cooling Down the House | History of Science Says:

    […] Ephemeral New York reminded us that New Yorkers used to weather the hot months of July and August sleeping out on […]

  8. Ordinary fire escapes—or romantic balconies? « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] By wildnewyork Used for everything from storage to urban gardening to hanging laundry to sleeping, fire escapes have been mandated on New York City buildings since […]

  9. Josie Says:

    I know from experience that some tenement (even modern public housing project) apartments without air conditioning can become quite literally unbearable during severe heat waves. Like being in an oven. You feel that you will explode from an internal pressure. Under those conditions it’s necessary to get out, anywhere, day or night. My parents sometimes took took long walks in the middle of the night, due to the unbearable heat in the apartment, e.g., across the Brooklyn Bridge, with me (first of the children) in a stroller.

  10. wildnewyork Says:

    I can also attest to how hot tenement apartments get–I currently live in one, and without AC, it is misery. Your parents’ solution turns that misery into something kind of romantic!

  11. Weegee: capturing life and crime in black and white « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] He wasn’t all about blood and grit. Weegee had a Fellini-esque eye for the weird and wonderful, as well as a soft spot for the tender—such as his 1938 photo of city kids sleeping on a tenement fire escape. […]

  12. Three ways New York used to cool off in summer « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] to scorching temperatures; there’s the heat wave of 1911, the heat wave of 1899, and the heat wave of 1938, among […]

  13. jinglesbelle Says:

    It is sad how hard they had it in those days!

  14. Dolores K. Petersen Says:

    Wonderful reminders of our past history! It is all brought back to real life for us. Thank goodness for air conditioners, but even now people still live like they did in the 30’s. We just don’t think about it.
    Good reporting of history!

  15. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks! I wonder what it was like without the endless noise of thousands of air conditioners churning through the summer night.

  16. vincent Says:

    most slept on the roof

  17. Brianp Says:

    Just discovered your bog. It’s fantastic.

  18. wildnewyork Says:

    Thank you!

  19. Rosie Quinones Says:

    Thank you

  20. A century of fire hydrants cooling New York kids | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] This AP photo was taken on Mulberry Street in 1936, the year of an exceptionally brutal heat wave. […]

  21. A dangerous way to sleep during a city heat wave | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] of course, you could always lay out a blanket and pillow on the fire escape. None were especially safe options, but for poor people in a pre–air conditioned New York, you […]

  22. trilby1895 Says:

    Pure torture. And then think of the days when the wood or coal-fueled cast iron kitchen stove had to be stoked no matter how hellishly hot and humid in order to cook for the family, wash laundry, “bathe”. The women wore high-button-necked, long-sleeved, down-to-the floor, long-sleeved dresses. For me, death would have been preferable. New Yorkers were intrepid, to say the least.


    The buildings in NEW YORK CITY radiate HEAT similar to a BRICK PIZZA OVEN, living in NYC during a HEAT WAVE is TERRIBLE!!! Without a FAN or AIR-CONDITIONING it can be TORTURE!!

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