02 January 2008

Daily Life: New Orlenas in the Summer

By Christine Koehler

I'm crazy, there's no two ways about it. I looked at the list and thought – "Oh, I should do an early date since I'm busy at the end of the month. The 2nd looks good." That gave me less than a week to come up with a blog about things I've been less-than-successfully researching for a year. I'll include links and book references for those interested in more.

How did the New Orleans inhabitants survive such stifling heat without electricity? No fans, no air-conditioning, food spoiled, they had to have their windows opened for what little breeze could be found, which led to the mosquito (and other bugs) problem. Plus the ever-present threat of a hurricane and the ensuing problems stagnate water caused. How'd they manage?

First, they built well. Not every house could face towards the gulf/river and any prevailing winds, but they used bousillage entre'pateaux (mud between the posts) to insulate their buildings. Made of clay, river sand and moss, it was then plastered and painted, and made a very effective insulation. Everything not made of brick was made of cypress, which rarely rotted.

Then they had a gallery, whose sole purpose was to keep the house shaded. It was used for sleeping when it was too hot, but otherwise for additional entertaining. Each house - plantation, townhouse, or Creole cottage - had very high ceilings to allow the hot air to rise. They also were built higher off the damp ground, and all had porches or galleries of some type for ventilation. The bedrooms were on the second floor, but if the house had a second floor, it had a second gallery.

There was the Cooling Room for the storage of food and wine. Made of brick with large archways (for the support of the above fireplaces), the walls were 18 inches thick. They couldn't have a cellar because of the water levels, but this room was placed under a bower of trees for as much shade as possible.

To catch the inevitable mosquito, along every windowsill the servants placed a bowl of blue water to tempt the pesky bug. The water was sugar water, which didn't necessarily kill the mosquito, but it did trap it for later disposal. I have a memory of seeing this water blue and want to say it was Indigo, but I'm not sure why that'd be so. Anyone?

Next was mosquito netting and rugs. The rugs were also used as an insulator, and the netting, well, as netting against the mosquitoes.

Sources: New Orleans History
Destrehan Plantation
A Young Person's Guide to New Orleans Houses by Lloyd Vogt
Old New Orleans, the Creole City: Its Role in American History 1718-1805 by Olga Hall-Quest
Louisiana: A Guide to the State by American Guide Series
The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld by Herbert Asbury
Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans by Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer