Summer Memories

Stories about how past generations of Americans coped with – and came to enjoy – the hottest months of the year.
A group of people wading in the ocean.

The Swelter of Summer: Heat Waves and the Urban Heat Island in New York City History

A history of record-breaking highs but also of sweaty, sticky, corporeal experiences.
As American cities grew bigger in the 19th century, their residents began to notice one unintended consequences of urbanization, not know as the "heat island" effect. In the 1860s, one NYC official explained that “powerful irradiation from sidewalks, pavements, and walls” made the city a “fiery furnace in Summer."
A 1947 advertisement for the air conditioner featuring two women looking bemusedly at a new window unit.

The Unexpected History of the Air Conditioner

The invention was once received with chilly skepticism but has become a fixture of American life.
You'd think that when air-conditioning came along, Americans would have embraced the technology with open arms. It turns out that wasn't always the case, as this piece explains.
Swimmers of all ages enjoy the Tidal Basin Bathing Beach in 1922. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

Cooling Off in the Tidal Basin

In the 1920s, Washingtonians dealt with the summer heat by going to the nearest the Tidal Basin.
In the days before air conditioning, Washington DC was one of the cities where summer could feel especially oppressive. This is the story of how Congress came to fund, and then de-fund, a swimming beach for the District's (white) residents.
Beachgoers speaking to a police officer.

Free the Beach

How seaside towns throughout the northeast limited the ability of ‘undesirables’ to access public beaches.
An excerpt from a book chronicling the privatization of public beaches by local governments in the Northeast bent on excluding "undesirables."

A Cool Dip & A Little Dignity

In 1961, two African-American men decided to go swimming at a whites-only Nashville pool. In response, the city closed all its public pools — for three years.
In 1961, two Nashville boys decided to challenge the segregationist policies of their local swimming pool. In response, the city closed all of its public pools. Read about how the legacy of Jim Crow still impacts swimming in the South a half-century later.
Turn of the century campers eating melon outside their tent

Before Camping Got Wimpy: Roughing It With the Victorians

A brief history of camping.
In the decades that followed the Civil War, some Americans started seeing the wilderness as a place worth traveling to. "Civilization was barely established in the western U.S.," according to an author quoted in this article, "when 'citizens were already seeking a respite from it.'"

Take a Hike!

Why do people hike?
Hiking was becoming popular at the same time. But despite the image of the solitary wanderer, famously embodied by John Muir, hiking in its earliest days was a social activity. The decisive moment, as this review explains, "was thus the formation of groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Sierra Club, in which 'meetings, dances, meals, and simple companionship were almost as important as the act of walking itself.'"
Collage of summer camp, toasting marshmallows, swimming, boating, camping, trees, and wildflowers.

The Life Lessons of Summer Camp

A few weeks in the woods have taught kids to face new situations, make their way among strangers, solve their own problems—and live a more authentic life.
Tradition and storytelling are woven into life at many summer camps. But this article takes us all the way back to the beginning of summer camp itself, explaining that the idea arose in 1861 out of an effort to show solidarity with the Union Army. It turned out that roughing it for a few weeks with a bunch of other kids was actually pretty fun.