Natural Cooling: The Fresh Air Bed

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 8.04.38 AMTechnology, such as air conditioning, has a way of flattening the ups and downs of our life’s experiences. We trade seasonal heat and cold for a bland, indoor sameness. Prior to the late 1950s, when air conditioning appeared in homes and apartments, builders used to have to consider regional differences. After air conditioning you could build any house anywhere. You could replace walls with sheets of glass, overhanging roofs with modernist boxes.

Particularly in hot, humid climates houses often had a screened porch or balcony on which to sleep on a sweltering night. The early 20th century was probably the zenith of the screened sleeping porch.

Taft's sleeping porch. Photo: Library of Congress.

Taft’s sleeping porch. Photo: Library of Congress.

President Taft even installed one on the roof of the White House in 1910.

The early 20th century’s sleeping porch movement also had a bit an anti-modernity vibe. To mitigate the pollution and psychic toll caused by 19th century industrialization, sleeping porch evangelists recommended dozing outside in fresh air. Entrepreneurs marketed a number of solutions, in addition to sleeping porches, such as sheds, tents and the gadget I want to focus on in this post, the convertible indoor/outdoor bed.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 9.37.06 AMThe California Fresh Air Bed Company
A number of patents exist for space-saving built-in beds that can switch between indoors and outdoors (Charles Hailey, “From Sleeping Porch to Sleeping Machine: Inverting Traditions of Fresh Air in North America“). The California Fresh Air Bed Company of San Francisco marketed a bed that converted from an indoor sofa to an outdoor bed. A 1914 ad in the Pacific Medical Journal describes the device:

It is built half inside and half outside, forming a handsome davenport in the room, and an ornamental balcony outside. Can be used as a full size indoor bed or by a very simple operation converted into an outdoor bed. Can be aired all day and yet be concealed.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 9.37.17 AMIt’s a space saving mashup of the fold-up Murphy bed with the screened porch. It also reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s alcove bed and the built-in ironing board in our kitchen. There’s a lot to say in favor of reviving the California Fresh Air Bed Company. I can say from personal experience, living in a house built in 1920, that space is at a premium. And, particularly in the late summer and early fall here in Southern California, it would be nice to be able to get some cool, fresh air at night. The downside would be all the light pollution: the overabundance of street lights, billboards, porch lights etc.

The Baby Cage

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A related and, perhaps, more harebrained outdoor sleeping arrangement was the window cage for your baby.

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An article on Mental Floss goes into greater depth on the brief reign of the baby cage which seems to have been a thing in England. You’d think that baby would get a bit cold and wet in London, but the “experts” thought the fresh air outweighed the cold and falling risk. There’s even a newsreel on the baby cage:

These days child protective services would stop by if you stuck your kid in a cage out the window.

cathouse19

The idea lives on, but only for cats, in the form of the Cat Solarium and in many homebrew kitty window solutions.

But enough about cats, what we really need is to bring back the California Fresh Air Bed Company’s clever indoor/outdoor bed. As many consider downsizing to smaller houses, space and energy saving furniture such as this make more sense than the oversized sofa sectionals that plague our modern mega-houses.

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12 Comments

  1. Since I am afraid of heights, that baby cage is scary. With all the pollution in that area and the lack of greenery, I wonder how “fresh” the air can be. Because I thought fresh air was good for my son, I put him on the carport in a wooden play pen. He ate, slept and moved around, perfectly content. He was not fond of the inside. Since sleeping in night air makes me really ill, I am thankful for ac.

    • I did not mean to post. Here in the South, traditionally, people slept on balconies and porches to escape the heat. I am not so sure it was for health benefits. But, I remember hearing older folk saying they could not sleep indoors. Our summer heat with humidity is stifling.

  2. When I was a kid in the 50s in the Hudson Valley of New York my father used to pitch a tent in the backyard for my sister and me. He built a wooden platform to hold a mattress off the ground and that’s where we slept all summer.

    It became a neighborhood sensation and all our friends wanted to sleep with us in the tent. A couple families got sleeping tents for their kids too.

    It really is a fond memory and I considered doing it for my kids but LA seemed a little too risky for it so I, sadly, declined. But my daughter and her husband still have the occasional family tent night in the backyard. If the sprinklers come on in the morning it’s all that much more exciting.

    • Rainey,
      That sounds wonderful. Now, in many places sleeping with the windows open can be risky with so many people climbing in to steal children. I live in a very safe place, but now I would not allow my children to sleep in the backyard. I was going to allow it in the 70s, but the kids were on my heels when I opened the patio door!

  3. This week the northern Sacramento Valley is reaching highs of somewhere around 109 or 110 and the lack of our usual evening breeze keeps the nighttime lows approaching 80 (in other words, we’re spoiled with our typical summer lows in the 60s and so this heat wave is downright unpleasant). Without the natural cooling we’re used to (open windows all night and a refreshed house in the morning), I’ve pulled out my Chinese reed mats.

    I can’t figure out what they are in English (they’re actually made of rushes) – not quite the mats people take to the beach and not quite tatami, they’re stiffly woven and smooth. They allow for air circulation UNDER you while you sleep and so help keep you cool when otherwise you’d be a sweaty, melted mess.

    They’re wonderful. With them, I don’t have to run AC at night. Even sleeping outside in the tent didn’t give the degree of relief just using my 席子 (shee-zi) did.

    We need this kind of low-tech answer to counteract what we’ve come to think is normal but that is really a huge sucking mess. Simple, really.

  4. I think that it is funny for the outdoor bed to come from San Francisco, where it rarely gets warm enough to warrant such a thing.

  5. Unfortunately now that Southern California has West Nile and Zika Virus carrying mosquitoes, I’m not sure if sleeping outdoors at night during the summer is really advisable.

  6. I just moved to a bungalow built in 1915 with an odd extended storage cabinet that must have been at one time a Fresh Air Bed Dome Wall. The dome window has been replaced with a flat one and the extension that used to go “outside” has been roofed over (not well, it leaks). At first I assumed it was a Murphey bed alternative. The bungalows were built for nurses at the Huntington Hospital. I assumed that if they got lucky for a night they could pull put the king sized sporting bed onto the living room floor. The fresh air bed concept makes a little more sense…

  7. My 1896 house has a “California refrigerator” – a cupboard with slats that open to the back to the outside, on the side of the house, presumably built in the 20s or 30s when the kitchen was added. But no California outdoor bed! I wish! We still function largely without the “technology” of AC, depending on fans to cool us off. I’ve thought about taking a pillow onto the roof more than once.

    • Inder, a friend of mine also has one of these (we did too but it was too far gone to save). I’ve been meaning to do a post on the California fridge. My friend uses it and it works.

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