Detroit, circa 1936. This view shows Woodward Avenue, looking south from Winder Street (Continue clicking on the image to view it at a larger size.).
After the winter of 2013-2014, many people are waiting to see what this summer will bring. The scorching summer of 2012 – when the heat and storms in the first week of July knocked out power to thousands of Michigan residents- isn’t too distant a memory. Michigan has faced worse, however.
This July marks the seventy-eighth anniversary of the 1936 heat wave, in which temperatures in many cities were, on average, eight to ten degrees higher than in 2012. In Detroit, the average temperature during the week of July 8-14, 1936 was 102 degrees (The hottest July week in 2012 averaged ninety-four degrees). Until 1936, Detroit had never had consecutive days of triple digit temperature readings.
This post card image dates from circa 1915-1925. While created ten or fifteen years before the 1936 heat wave, it still shows how early twentieth century Detroiters “beat the heat” at Belle Isle (Continuing clicking on the image to view it at a larger size.).
In 1936, air conditioning was a new luxury, and movie theaters were some of the few places that had it. Some theaters in Detroit stayed open all night so people could stay in the cool. Other Detroiters escaped the heat by visiting places such as Belle Isle for a swim. Ice blocks sold for a penny, and many people chose to sleep outside in places such as Cass Park rather than suffer in their cramped, non-air conditioned homes.
Sadly, not all Detroiters “beat the heat” in 1936. The seven-day heat wave claimed at least 364 lives in the city. Most of the victims were elderly, but some infants and adults were stricken, as well. In the days before air conditioning became common, heat such as this could be especially deadly.
A Westinghouse fan from circa 1930s (Continue clicking on the image to view it at a larger size.)
Implements of Cool
How could one keep cool at home in 1936? If you were lucky enough to afford one and could find one in stock, you could buy an electric Westinghouse fan (shown in the image on the left) for about $5.00. By 1937, Westinghouse was using coated fan blades that were quiet and lasted longer, and varying sizes were available for your desk, nightstand, or even your car dashboard. Staying cool was becoming a bit easier.