A warning from the Surgeon General about air conditioning

Letter from the Surgeon General regarding air conditioning at the National Archives, page 1 (holdings of the National Archives)

Rick Blondo, management and program analyst at the National Archives, reflects on the logistics of maintaining records in the sweltering humidity that is summer in Washington, DC.

Summer in Washington can be a wilting experience for tourists and locals alike, but not so for the holdings maintained in the National Archives.

The National Archives was one of the first buildings in Washington with air conditioning. The building was designed in the 1930s to safeguard the records of the United States in an environment suited to that purpose.

The vault-like structure included an air conditioning system that could maintain 70 degrees in winter and 80 degrees in summer throughout the entire building. Relative humidity was kept at 55 percent in stacks and 45 percent in workrooms.

The holdings collected in the stacks would be cool, but officials wondered if the relatively cool air elsewhere in the building would pose a health problem to staff.

Louis A. Simon, the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on the National Archives, asked the Surgeon General to provide an opinion about whether exposure to conditioned air (and also a high amount of artificial lighting) posed a health risk to those who would work in the building.

The Surgeon General, H.S. Cumming, determined that “during certain extremely hot days, the workers in the Archives Building will complain about the atmospheric conditions if the indoor temperature is kept below 80 degrees while the outdoor temperature rises to the neighborhood of 95 degrees or more. Undoubtedly, a very large proportion of these objections will be encountered among the older employees.” He went on to state that “no directly harmful effect on health need be anticipated, and it is, of course, possible that the outdoor temperature exceeds 90 degrees on so few days each year that the number of complaints might be relatively small…”

The air conditioning system from the York Ice Machinery Corporation made the Archives one of the “cool” places to be in DC. It still is.

Letter from the Surgeon General regarding air conditioning at the National Archives, page 2 (holdings of the National Archives)

One thought on “A warning from the Surgeon General about air conditioning

  1. This is a fascinating read. I love reading all these only letters and points of view. It’s particularly interesting to read the language that is used and how it is far more formal in most cases than it is today. It must have been a real wonder to be in one of the first building in the world to have air conditioning, I wonder if they knew at the time just how widespread this would become!

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