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  • It's Cool Inside:Advertising Air Conditioning to Postwar Suburbia
  • Andrea Vesentini (bio)

Everything worth saying about the American way of life I could put in thirty pages. Topographically the country is magnificent—and terrifying. Why terrifying? Because nowhere else in the world is the divorce between man and nature so complete.1

Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, 1945

The amenities of modern life, such as panel-heating or air conditioning, humidifying and dehumidifying, have fostered the belief that we have "conquered" the inconveniences of our climate. We have ice-skating rinks in summer, and warm outdoor swimming pools in winter. . . . Still, nobody could say that we have come to terms with the outdoors. We merely retreated after a spiritless campaign to, what defeated generals referred to as, pre-arranged positions.2

Bernard Rudofsky, Behind the Picture Window, 1955

In July 1945, as the world conflict was nearing its end, Life readers were given a preview of postwar domestic bliss. What they were shown, however, might not look exactly appealing at first glance: an image of a smoke-filled dining room [Figure 1]. Had one of the new electric gadgets short-circuited? Or [End Page 91]

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Figure 1.

"Air conditioning: After the war it will be cheap enough to put in private homes." Life, July 16, 1945, 39.

had perhaps fallout found a way into the suburban house? No need to panic: the bomb was just around the corner but still far from the mind of most Americans. Life was just prophesying the upcoming success of the new wonder in modern living: air conditioning. How to portray the new technology was, however, quite a thorny issue for a magazine whose success came from visual rather than [End Page 92] written commentaries. The awkward solution came with Carrier Corporation adding smoke to the cooling device in one of its experimental rooms to make the refrigerated air visible in the photograph.3

Ingenious as it was, could the same trick be used for advertising? Was not the picture of a gas chamber rather counterproductive, given the recent war events? Unlike refrigerators and other household appliances, the trouble with air conditioning was the invisibility of its benefits. The image of a fuming chicken perfectly showed the miracle of an electric oven, and a fresh cut of meat was enough to prove the comforts of a fridge, but how could the cool experience be made visible? Refrigeration was no longer just about storing food but also about living well. In a marketing industry that was increasingly dominated by images, there had to be one for coolness.4

This article explores how advertisers in the postwar decades—roughly from 1945 to the end of the 1960s—devised visual strategies to convey the benefits of air conditioning and link them to a suburban lifestyle. The very word of choice to describe the pleasures of climate control, "cool" as a milder coldness a step closer to warmth but miles away from heat, curbed extremes in a fashion typical of suburbia, a middle landscape between city and country where one could enjoy the benefits of both in moderation. In so doing, these ads articulated specific social dynamics that associated climatic comfort with social status by providing a hierarchical representation of interiors and exteriors, contrasting the desirability of the former with the discomforts of the latter. These metaphors eventually went as far as suggesting that air conditioning would ultimately recreate a better rendition of the outdoors within the home. This latest stretch of the imagination proved necessary to counteract the fear that the claustrophobic properties of the technology, whose end goal was in fact the interior's climatic self-sufficiency from the exterior, would run against the assumption that suburbia afforded the green pastures and open air that the city lacked.

The extensive historiography on postwar suburbia has seldom addressed the role of air conditioning in constructing and disseminating the ideal of suburban domesticity in the booming years of suburbanization, spanning from the end of the war until the mid-1960s. Histories of air conditioning have mostly chronicled its rise and spread into the private domestic market, but little has been...