How Did The Victorians Keep Cool During The Summer?

August 26th, 2022

By Mel Oles, Visitor Services and Program Manager at Rose Hill Mansion and Johnston House

August has arrived, bringing with it hot days punctuated by violent thunderstorms. The heat can sometimes be oppressive at Rose Hill. These are the dog days of summer, and without modern air conditioning, the tour guides understand how warm it gets inside the mansion. The Swan family and Rose Hill workers would have found ways to deal with the heat and keep cool.

a man and three women along side water

Agnes Swan with unidentified family members near the present day location of the Seneca Yacht Club.

While they relied on the belvedere to help cool the house, the Swan family could try to escape the heat with outdoor activities such as a family outings. Victorian families didn’t travel together as much as we do today. A family outing was an excursion that could easily be done in a day or less. It could have been as simple as a walk in the woods, a picnic at Seneca Lake, or ride to a neighboring town in the carriage. We have photographs of the Swan family at the Seneca Lake outlet.

Many of Robert Swan’s New York City relatives visited Rose Hill, especially during the summer, to escape the heat and for fresh air. Uncle Caleb and Aunt Harriet Swan came to stay at Rose Hill for months almost every summer. Uncle Caleb kept a diary during his visits and regularly recorded the weather. In 1864 he wrote, “13 aug sat 70 clear, 92 at 3. Pleasant breeze, the lake is bright blue. . . heard the Crows by the Pine grove towards the Lake,  . . . Mr & Mrs Anthony Dey, of Varick . . .  – called to avoid an approaching Thundershower – it soon came preceded by a gust. It rained nearly half an hour  . . .” One would not want to be caught in a carriage during a thunderstorm.

Though Victorian clothing looks to our modern eye as hot and heavy, it was made of very light, breathable fabrics that sometimes were almost transparent. Women’s dresses covered their entire bodies, which seems counterintuitive, but it is the exposure of the skin to the that sun raises the body temperature. The Swan family would do what we do today—stay out of the sun. They would stay inside with the shutters closed during the hottest part of the day or under the shade of a large tree with the breeze off Seneca Lake.

The Swan family was not alone on the farm. They had hired help both inside the house and in the fields. With overflowing kitchen gardens, the domestic staff would be busy making the preserves and storing food.  They would make preserves, jellies, mustards, and herb vinegars for the winter months. This would have been a hot and hard job, so a cold drink and proper clothing would help them stay cool. The farm hands would also drink plenty of water, take breaks in the afternoon and start very early in the morning.

These are only a few ways that the Swan family and Rose Hill workers would keep cool.  How do you escape the summer heat?

2 responses to “How Did The Victorians Keep Cool During The Summer?”

  1. Crystal says:

    Where was Rose Hill? I am helping a friend gain historic information about a home he purchased just outside of New Geneva. Thanks in advance.

    1. Anne Dealy says:

      Do you mean New Geneva PA? Rose Hill is in Seneca County, just across Seneca Lake from Geneva, NY.

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