As it were

We acted differently in Dog Days of old


The Romans are with us still. Depending on whom you read the Roman Empire came to a rather bad end around 476 AD with the fall of Rome. People living in the Eastern Empire would hasten to point out that the real end of the Empire came in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. In any case, it is fair to say that Rome has not been around for a while. Yet the shadow of its influence lingers on.

I met an acquaintance a short time ago on one of those days when one could literally fry an egg on the hood of a car and mentioned how hot it was. "Yes," she replied, "the Dog Days are here."

One might wonder where the term "Dog Days" came from. When I was quite young, I asked an uncle that very question. He told me that it was that time in the summer when everyone "was panting like a good dog on a bad day." Growing up as I did, in an era without air conditioning, that explanation made a certain amount of sense and I felt I had heard the correct explanation of the term.

And of course I was wrong.

The term "Dog Days" goes all the way back to the Romans. The people of Rome associated the oppressive heat of summer -- and Roman summers can be quite hot indeed -- with a rather bright star. The "Dies Caniculares" or "Dog Days" were associated the star Sirius which was located in the constellation Canis Major (the Big Dog).

Today we blame bad weather on cold and hot fronts and the influence of diverse streams of air. The Romans blamed bad weather on a star. And by inference, so do we.

Are summers today hotter than they once were or not? A lot of the answer to that question depends on our point of view. Statistically, we can objectively look at Columbus temperature information from 1878 when a weather station was established for the United States Signal Service in the top floor of the Huntington Bank building on the southwest corner of Broad and High Streets. That building is long gone and a spacious patio marks the site.

If we look back at the official records of weather in Columbus we find that the average temperature for the month of August from 1878 to 1890 varied from 69.5 degrees to 75.2 degrees. But these measurements reflect only averages and not the situation of the people living through long hot summers in central Ohio.

Sometimes we forget that the temperature that is officially reported is the temperature in the shade. In the summer of 1878 -- a really hot summer -- the maximum temperature was listed at 94 degrees in the shade. Yet one local history reported that the temperature "was as high as 114 degrees in the sun. Many cases of heat prostration and sunstroke were reported."

This should not be too surprising. In the world of 135 years ago, ladies wore long dresses. Gentlemen dressed in wool pants and wore a suit coat over a waistcoat over a heavy cotton shirt.

In the long hot summers of central Ohio, how did these people endure the heat? The answer is that some of them did not. They died of extreme exposure to the sun.

But most people managed to survive. How did they do it?

In an age of air conditioning, we look back and sometimes wonder how people could live without it. We see these people wearing multiple layers of heavy clothing and working strenuously at outdoor activities. In an age when we can cook quickly and cleanly, how did these people brave an overheated kitchen?

They did it by simple human adaptation. When the temperature gets too hot, one slows down or ceases activity that causes heat exhaustion. Schools, stores and offices cut back on their hours and even short walks were curtailed. People learned to live with the heat.

Columbus, until well into the nineteenth century, was a "walking city." People walked to school, to church or to business. With the coming of the summer heat, the people of Columbus did not go out as much.

When they did go out, they tried to find places away from the heat of the heart of the city. If it was not possible to go to the country, an acceptable alternative was often a visit to a public park.

It also is important to remember that one's view of the difficulty of life in the past is seen though the perspective of our own time. Many of the people of 1913 in Columbus probably felt they were living in the best of times. Certainly the poor were still present in the city as was crime and congestion.

But for all of that, life in 1913 was in many ways preferable to life in 1813. For all of its dangers and travail, the rise of an industrial society had transformed America into the most powerful country on earth and a beacon of hope to much of the world.

Local historian and author Ed lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.