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23 Park Avenue, #4NS (Compass) 23 Park Avenue, #4NS (Compass)
If this summer seems extra-hot to you, it’s not hyperbole – temperature extremes are being reported all over the world, and scientists are warning that 2023 could be the hottest year on record. New York has gotten off light compared to the Southwest, but city residents still have high-temperature forecasts and uncomfortable subway stations to contend with this year.

As extreme heat can lead to serious health issues, city officials have taken action. In 2020, the city passed a series of bills to address cooling equity in New York. Additionally, NYC Emergency Management offers information on cooling centers, water features, and tree cover. The city's public pools and beaches offer a welcome respite, while others, as the following Instagram post shows, take more creative measures to beat the heat.
However, while landlords are required to heat apartments during the colder months, tenants are generally left on their own when it comes to cooling their homes. Central air conditioning has become the norm in new buildings, but those who live in buildings that were constructed before its invention have to make do with window units and/or fans. With the potential for a health crisis every summer, it’s natural to wonder, what was summer like in New York before the invention of air conditioning?

Life Before Air Conditioning

As anyone who has lived through a New York City heatwave might imagine, life in the city prior to the widespread availability of air conditioning ranged from highly uncomfortable to deadly. Until air conditioning became widely accessible in the 1960s, summers were often marked by high death tolls as people crammed into tenements in high-density neighborhoods, like the Lower East Side, succumbed to the heat.
On July 4, 1872, the New York Times reported that 100 city residents had died from heat exposure in the previous 48 hours, but the article also noted that in many cities, such as Calcutta where temperatures often soar above 90, residents still manage to cope. The article suggested that the high death toll may be more directly linked to New Yorkers’ love of “spirituous drinks,” which also tend to be consumed in much higher quantities during heatwaves.
New York’s stifling tenements and poor heat coping strategies were not the only problem during early heatwaves. To this day, New Yorkers still complain about the sweltering conditions on MTA subway platforms (last week, reported temperatures were well above 100 degrees in many stations), but in the early 20th century, commuters were even worse off. When a subway rolled into the station on a hot day, it brought no relief. Indeed, commuters had no choice but to cram onto crowded and sweltering subway cars and not always without consequence. During the city’s deadly 1911 heatwave, the rush hour subway situation was described by one reporter as follows: “As each train crept into a station prostrated passengers were assisted to the benches. At the Grand Central Station Dr. Baer of Flower Hospital attended many of the sufferers. Many others were rushed to the drug stores in the vicinity.” Four years later, during another heatwave, a 45-year-old subway worker was reportedly so “crazed by the heat after a day of hard work” that he committed suicide.
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library.

Coping with the Heat: Outdoor Sleeping, Floating Baths and Ice Houses

Despite the perils faced by city residents prior to the invention of air conditioning, resourceful New Yorkers’ have always found ways to cope with the summer heat.
One of the most popular heat-coping strategies was simply to sleep outdoors. During a heat wave in late July 1892, the New York Times reported, “On the East Side many families moved into the streets which were lined with baby carriages and cribs while the grown up persons lounged about in doorways or took cat naps lying on trucks or stretched out on the pavement.” While some city residents headed outdoors to sleep on the street, others headed to Central Park or out to Coney Island. During a June heatwave in 1923, the mayor declared all city parks to permit outdoor sleeping. During the same heatwave, the New York Times reported that the “Coney Island sands were crowded all night by suffering families from tenements.”
Although both the East and the Hudson rivers were highly polluted bodies of water by the late 19th century due to the presence of industrial and human waste of all kinds, until the mid 20th century, swimming in both bodies of water remained a popular way for New Yorkers to cool off. Swimming, however, also came with its risks. Drowning deaths often spiked during local heatwaves. Fortunately, for the more cautious, there were also a number of floating baths located along the shores of the Hudson and East River. Popular from the early 19th century onwards, these baths or pools offered a controlled swimming environment on the city’s local waterways (the floating baths were enclosed and usually only 2.5 to 4.5 feet deep). The first free public floating baths appeared in the East River in 1870 and by the 1890s, the city had 15 baths in operation on both the west and east shores of Manhattan. The baths, eventually taken over by New York City Parks, were finally closed to the public in the early 1940s due to deteriorating water conditions or more likely, a growing recognition of the risks associated with swimming in such water.
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library.
But perhaps the best way to beat the summer heat in the city prior to the invention of air conditioning was to acquire a job working in a local ice house. Although a grueling job by all accounts, ice houses were no doubt the coolest work environments in the region prior to the arrival of air-conditioned workplaces.
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library.

The Invention of Air Conditioning

Relief from the heat first arrived in the early 1930s when many commercial buildings in New York started to install air conditioning units. The first residential adopters were primarily luxury buildings, including new high-rise residences. But adoption was by no means fast. This is largely due to the fact in 1931, an individual room air conditioner, which one can now purchase for less than a $100 at most local hardware stores, cost between $10,000 and $50,000 (about $120,000 to $600,000 by today’s standards). By the 1940s, air conditioners were finding their way into a growing range of homes but still remained out-of-reach for most average citizens. Over the next two decades, however, the cost of air conditioning units continued to drop, and by the 1960s most city residents had at least limited access to air conditioning in their homes, at work or in a publicly accessible space.
Illustrated bulletin No. 25 descriptive of the Bayley Turbo Atomizer, the Bayley Turbo Air Washer and air conditioner for cleaning, cooling, tempering, humidifying and dehumidifying air by Bayley Manufacturing Company, Published c. 1920
Central air conditioning in the 1970s represented another major innovation on the cooling front, but by the 1990s, Freon, a central component of central air units, had been linked to ozone depletion, putting a chill on many people’s love affair with air conditioning. While many Freon units have now been replaced, Freon is not the only problem. Whenever you turn on your air conditioner to cool down, your unit is emitting waste heat. This waste heat contributes to what is known as “heat island effect”—a condition unique to densely populated areas that leads to higher than average temperatures. Some studies suggest that air conditioners alone may be driving up temperatures by as much as two degrees. In theory, then, air conditioners are making our cities hotter not cooler.
Before you turn off your air conditioner, strip down to your underwear and start preparing to sleep in a local park, however, bear in mind that there are some precautions you can take to at least mitigate the harmful side effects of air conditioning. If you have an older unit, replace it with a newer and more environmentally friendly and efficient one. If you feel like you’re living in an ice box, turn up the thermostat. Finally, if you go out, turn off your unit entirely or raise the thermostat even higher.
nyc air conditioner Image by Traci Lawson

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Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.