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Friday, August 8, 2014

How SI Staff Beat the Heat

Postcard of the National Museum of Natural History, c. 1910-1915,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2013-07214
Summer means heat and humidity for us in the nation’s capital, and though it seemed like only yesterday we were worried about the snow falls, now we seek out the solace of light clothing and an air conditioned building. However, this was not always a luxury Smithsonian employees could find.

When the Smithsonian’s new United States National Museum building, now the National Museum of Natural History, opened in 1910, its state-of-the-art design and construction exhibited collections wonderfully, but did not always make for a comfortable working environment. Willis Carrier invented the modern air conditioner in 1902, and in 1906 the first office building designed for air conditioning was built. But this expensive novelty was not something the Smithsonian could afford at the time of the construction of the new museum. Consequently, Smithsonian staff often felt the heat.

In addition to the lack of cool air, according to Smithsonian taxidermist Watson Perrygo who worked in the building, “Everybody wore hard collars. We always wore ties. In my days you couldn't go in like this [short sleeved shirt and casual slacks] or they'd call you up to the front office.” This strict dress policy requiring jackets, collars and ties made for some overheated staff members who turned to a creative solution to cool off in the summer months.

Watson Perrygo at Work, January 19,1933
Smithsonian Institution Archives, 81-13386

Smithsonian staff chipped in money and pooled their resources to make their own air conditioning unit. Perrygo noted, “Oh, yes. You know what air conditioning we had--a piece of ice from the ice house with a fan blowing on it. That was the air conditioning. That was it for years and years.” The ice man would deliver a large block of ice and place it in a tub.  Staff would then place an electric fan behind it to distribute the cooled area to their workrooms, allowing them to survive Washington’s hot and muggy summer months. On occasion, the building became too hot and work operations shut down for the day, but that was a rare occurrence.

Taxidermists Working on Hippopotamus in Suites and Ties, 1930s
Smithsonian Institution Archives, MAH 11087-A

The United States Congress approved funds for the installation of air-conditioning in the Natural History Building in 1960, and staff no longer had to rely on ice to cool off. So enjoy the summer heat, casual attire, and the respite of air conditioned buildings.

Courtney Bellizzi,

Perrygo quotes Interview 1, Pages 39-40, Watson Perrygo Oral History, Record Unit 9516, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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