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Cooling Drinks Before the Advent of Air-Conditioning

Welcome to the dog days of summer, when our thoughts turn to refreshing drink. (To be honest, they also turn to refreshing drink in fall, winter, and spring, but that’s another discussion.) Thirst rises in tandem with temperature, and in this season we seek out beverages that best refresh and revitalize.

Having cooling beverages a century ago made the difference between July lasting 31 days, and July lasting approximately 500 days.

What drinks accomplish this most efficiently? Well, who better to ask than members of the generations who lived before the advent of air-conditioning? Having cooling beverages a century ago made the difference between July lasting 31 days, and July lasting approximately 500 days.

Not surprisingly, the pre-AC era also saw considerable debate over the best “cooling drinks,” a term referred to frequently enough to almost merit a category of cocktail. Two typical newspaper stories from the 1890s were forthrightly headlined “Drinks for Hot Weather” and “Hot Weather Advice for People Who are Thirsty,” suggesting that a perspiring people had no time for your nonsense. They just wanted a drink that would cool them off now.

But that was where agreement ended. Opinions differed wildly as to what exactly should go down the gullet—what it should contain, and how cold it should be served. “A cold drink is one thing and a drink that is cooling is quite another,” the Baltimore Sun reported in 1898. “People should take care to find out what drinks do actually cool the blood and lower the temperature in hot weather.” A Brooklyn newspaper in 1884 had another admonition: “In the art of decocting cooling drinks … there are pretenders as well as experts.”

The problem being, there was no shortage of self-styled experts: “The best drinks in summer are the acid drinks and the carbonated drinks” (1895). Shandygaff (ginger beer and Bass ale) was the “summer drink par excellence” for athletes, as it warmed the stomach while it cooled the rest of the system (1894). Another insisted on whiskey on cracked ice with a little mineral water, which, “if one keeps quiet, will even lower the temperature of the body” (1895). Or buttermilk, “the most cooling and refreshing drink,” which is “now served at every up-to-date bar in the country” (1907). Or “Rhine wine and seltzer with a little lime juice” (1895). An 1894 inventory of cooling drinks included Remson Cooler, Peachblow Fizz, Highland Fling, and Tuxedo Cooler (“a very popular drink on hot days”).

Beer as a coolant was popular then as now, but not without dissent. “Beer is about the worst thing in the catalogue to keep cool on,” said a New York bartender in 1895, because the hops send the temperature of the blood upward such that the drinker is “fairly sizzling inside like a steam heating radiator.”

If there was anything approaching consensus in the 19th century, it was that alcohol in any form should be shunned. “Don’t let anyone tempt you to drink cocktails,” warned one bartender. It affects the blood and the nerves, and when it gets around 90 degrees, “they’re simply death and destruction.” And an actual doctor, Joseph C. Marcus, wrote in 1895 that, “I do not favor alcohol in hot weather in any form whatsoever.” (He did go on to note, however, “like many others, doctors do not practice what they preach.”)

The summer cocktail warning wasn’t universally embraced. Harry Johnson, in his noted 1882 bartender’s manual, recommended the Stone Wall cocktail as “a very cooling drink, and most generally called for in the warm season.”

Among many, a belief persisted that cold liquids were cooling and healthy, but liquids containing ice were not.

Interestingly, Johnson specified that ice could be used to chill the drink, but should be removed before serving. Among many, a belief persisted that cold liquids were cooling and healthy, but liquids containing ice were not. “The iced drinks served over bars are all essentially bad,” wrote Dr. Marcus, “impeding the digestive functions and make [sic] food lay heavy in the stomach.”

A writer in the Vermont Record and Farmer in 1874 thought it would be best if the price of ice were doubled to reduce demand. The profligate use of ice in cooling drinks, he groused, was “entirely immoderate and probably is the cause of no small part of the dyspepsia that persecutes our countrymen and women.” He was not done: Iced drinks are “an abomination and a foe to the digestive function,” he wrote. “It is very much as if one should undertake to heat his body by roasting his foot.”

Before we slip into a dark, cool bar redolent of leaking refrigerant and last night’s spilled beer, let us consider advice from 1898, which noted that the most cooling drinks are the simplest, purest drinks, with a touch of acid from lemon, lime, or grapefruit. These not only allay thirst, but also “cool the blood and keep one fairly amiable during a very hot spell.”

So let us conclude with a languid toast of July Punch, which was touted in a 1907 article. It’s a nonalcoholic “cooling drink” and consists of shaved ice, powdered sugar, two maraschino cherries, a slice of lime, and then “moderately strong tea”—a sort of iced tea served as a “fancy drink.”

Extravagant? No. But it seems just the potion for anyone seeking to cool off and who has aspirations to be “fairly amiable” in a season when blood runs hot.

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