Keeping Your Cool: Advertising Air Conditioning

A look back at some historic, pre- and post-World War II air conditioning advertising.

A patent for W.H. Carrier's apparatus for treating air, 1906. “Cheat the atmospheric whims of Mother Nature” was the promise made to the men and women flipping through a 1944 copy of Life Magazine, in an advertisement for a soon-to-be household essential”Packaged Air,” better known now as air conditioning.  

Air conditioning as we know it today was developed at the turn of the Twentieth Century, when engineer Willis Carrier patented his “Apparatus for Treating Air,” a machine built to regulate the temperature and humidity of textile mills. By the early 1930s, air conditioning was on the brink of emerging from a luxury item to a necessity, buoyed by innovations like individual room cooling systems and window-ledge units.  

A job preparation pamphlet distributed by the National Youth Administration’s Guidance Program in 1938, described air-conditioning (in the language of their school-aged audience) as “the topsy among modern industries.” The job prep booklet anticipated that, similar to the “electric lighting,” automobile, and refrigeration industries, that jobs would rapidly emerge as air conditioning became more and more widely used. 

An advertisement calling for men to join the air conditioning industry featured in Popular Mechanics In the 1930s and early 1940s, only a few hundred companies were manufacturing air conditioning equipment in the United States, but growth was rapid. In Chicago alone, the total number of air conditioners installed city-wide went from just 255 in 1932 to over 1,300 in 1936. Public businesses, like restaurants and movie theaters, were among the early adopters of air conditioning (as was the U.S. Capitol building, which had air conditioning installed in 1937). Well into the 1950s, restaurants in cities still prominently noted on their menus that the establishment was air conditioned.  

Manufacturing plants also found uses for air conditioning units, too. Chrysler advertised their “Packed Air” units as essential to the war effort, keeping machine surfaces clean and rust-free. “When peace comes,” the Chrysler Corporation copy read, “these skills will again create heating, cooling and refrigeration units for homes and commercial use that will set new, high standards of efficiency and performance.”  

Post World War II, the focus shifted back home. As prices for units dropped, and the units themselves got smaller, air conditioning changed its marketing from a luxury item to a household necessity. And this changed the way it was advertised--from sketches of men, hard at work, in Popular Mechanics, to images of families, highlighting the health and safety benefits. 

In a 1944 Life Magazine ad, a photo of a smiling infant, floating in the air above an industrial city, is shown beside the slogan: “Packaged Air” is fine for babies.” The ad copy describes the soon-to-be ubiquitousness of air conditioning, and claims that if babies “could speak for themselves they’d loudly echo, ‘Packaged Air is fine for us. It gives greater protection and comfort when we need them most.’” Images of happy families boarding an air conditioned car, or women relaxing in air conditioned bedrooms frequented the pages of American magazines and newspapers.  

An advertisement showing a woman enjoying the cool of a General Electric home air conditioning unit,

An advertisement for packaged air featured in Life Magazine, January 24, 1944. Brochures from air conditioning manufacturers were aimed squarely at what were considered women’s domestic concerns: how air conditioning could prevent fine wrinkle lines, how children benefit from cooler air, or how it could “save you 22 hours a month on dusting alone!” As one 1956 purchasing pamphlet read: “This is a subject that vitally affects your health and well-being. It’s just too important for you to be guided by hearsay and half-truths.” 

Studies and articles also helped explain to the emerging, post-war American consumer how air conditioning worked. Diagrams showed how air flowed through a house, and addressed questions about choosing the right size unit and operating costs. A 1945 Life article showed photos of a unique demonstration of the Carrier Corporation’s unit. A mock-up living room was installed with light bulbs, totaling 500 watts, to mimic the “same amount of heat as four bridge players.” To show how cool air would diffuse through the room, the experiment used smoke--pictured in the article as rising, filling the space and obscuring several brightly-burning light bulbs arranged around a card table.  

As one 1939 text summarized, “air conditioning is looked upon by most people as a mysterious, complicated specialty.” Advertising--from photos of women brushing their hair and not breaking a sweat, to happy, healthy babies--helped a pre-war luxury hit home for American families. 

Related Resources

History of Air Conditioning, Department of Energy

A Brief History of Air Conditioning, Popular Mechanics 

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.