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A Hot Mess: The Heat Wave of ’36

A Hot Mess: The Heat Wave of ’36

As residents of the Southern half of the U.S. suffer through the worst heat wave and drought in a generation, it seems fitting that 2011 also marks the 75th anniversary of the hottest summer in U.S. history.

In the summer of 1936, temperatures across the United States and Southern Canada reached record highs, many of which have not been broken to this day. Crops died from the heat, and so did many people — 5,000 of them, in fact, in a time before air conditioning was widespread.

What’s more, the heat wave struck at a difficult time in history, right in the middle of the Great Depression, and at the tail end of the historic Dust Bowl era, when drought and poor farming practices combined to turn the once rich farming land of the American prairies into a barren wasteland.

The heat wave began at the end of June 1936, as temperatures across North America soared into the triple digits, and the skies dried up, baking the ground below it. Many cities set heat records in excess of 110° F, while communities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Arkansas all topped 120° F! Even at night, lows dipped only into the nineties in many areas.

As usually happens in a drought year, the dry soil worsened the heat conditions, creating a heat feedback loop that stabilized the heat wave. Soil temperatures reportedly reached temperatures in excess of 200° F in some area, curtailing the ability for new life to grow. Farmers experienced the worst growing season on record, causing the price of staple foods, such as corn and wheat, to skyrocket.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke were common during this time, and people did what they could to cool off. Numerous photographs exist of people packed like sardines at Coney Island, as the temperature in New York City reached 106° F, while residents of several Midwestern cities slept outside — on their lawns, in public parks or, in one notable instance, on the lawn of the state capital — to get relief from the punishing heat.

North America finally cooled down in September of that year, as temperatures and precipitation returned to normal, but the cruel summer of 1936 was one that no one forgot for many years after.

24 comments

1 n u { 04.05.14 at 5:49 pm }

1936 was before my time but I remember my mother talking about it. She lived in a NYC tenement at the time. People slept out on the fire escapes at night to have some comfort. NYC’s alltime high temp of 106° was reached on 07/09/1936. And it was probably hotter because in those days the official weather station was located at the old Battery Maritime building near the water. Unofficial temp of 112° near Times Square was probably the real high temp.

2 Leslie { 07.17.12 at 4:19 pm }

Summer 2012 is pretty cruel if you ask me! Over 60% of the nation is in drought conditions. The largest in more than 50 years. The plains, midwest, and east coast is suffering through very high heat and sufficating humidity. Its amazing how all of these cities broke ALL TIME records. We got up to 110 degrees in early July. Its never been that hot!! Im 54 years old, but i have heard about 1936 from my mother. I even asked her about the dust bowl summers and she said they were just horrible. Night time lows were only in the 90s! So there was no escaping the heat but everybody is saying that this summer is one for the record books

3 Nermina { 07.17.12 at 3:22 pm }

I moved to USA from Croatia few years ago and I was shocked to see people in the richest country in the world to live in the worst built houses in the world. In Croatia to this day people don’t have AC but ALL the houses are built out of concrete, brick, large stone blocks and they are wonderfully cool inside when it is 45C or 115F outside. What is with Americans and their paper/plywood houses ?! Why people here don’t build houses as God and common sense demands ?

4 Ginger { 07.25.11 at 10:03 am }

It’s summer and just like some winters are colder than others, some summers can be hotter. 1936 was before my time but I remember many hot summers when I was a kid. And it just shows that all this ‘man-made global warming’ stuff is a bunch of hooey.

5 varaha { 07.23.11 at 10:05 pm }

Interesting comments. I grew up in Dallas in the 50s, 60s. My dad had an AC in his bedroom in the late 60s. We used to sit out in the evenings and make hand cranked icecream on Fridays. Or we would go to the drive in theaters. Homes built back in the day usually had porches or verandas. Many were screened in and folks could sleep there. These are the fondest memories of my youth. It was over 100 every day and we were still happy.

6 Edith { 07.22.11 at 12:21 pm }

When iIwas youg in the 40′s we used to sleep on the sumer porch at the farm and my Mom and Gram would put their feet in cold water in an enamel pan and sit outside under the trees.

7 John P. Lock { 07.21.11 at 3:34 pm }

In the summer of 1936 I was 7 years old. We lived on a quarter of a section of land 4 miles south of Altus, Oklahoma. We did not have one tree, all the shade we had was the east and west side of the house morning and evening. We had no electricity, my father had to haul water from town by horse and wagon. We also had swarms of grass-hoppers, that eat up what cotton we had that had not already burned up by the heat. Now in the summer of 2011 I am 81 years old and going thru another hot summer, I must say this is much easier than the summer of 1936

8 sharon { 07.21.11 at 1:16 pm }

i was expecting in 1980 due date was july 12 i had my daughter july 31. i remember how hot is was then if we went anywhere we didn’t dress the baby just put cloth diapers on her that was hung on the line to dry. i also remember the stories my grandparents told of those times, seeing the old photos and missing some of the ways of life that are gone with most people. i still use the cloths line. we still sit out in the shade. we garden and use mulch to hold the moister in. we usually don’t use the ac until june but we have fans. we do have a pool we don’t know what we would do without. we love the way we live it’s not for all people we know.we chose to live this way.

9 Lynda { 07.21.11 at 10:09 am }

In 1936 at Friendship ( a small community east of Altus, Okla.) the temperature was 118 degree. If I stayed the night at my Grandma & Grandpa’s house, grandma would put wet T towels at the window and sprinkle our bed with the ironing sprinkler. Loved to stay there.

10 Dianne Kelly { 07.21.11 at 2:57 am }

I am so grateful for air conditioning and fans There are way to many people out there suffering in this horrible heat For us that have the option to keep cool say a prayer for the ones that dont have that luxury!! {if u want to}

11 Lynda { 07.21.11 at 2:27 am }

Environmentalists and meteorologists really do scare people to death. This is no different than it was when I was growing up and I was born in ’44. We slept with the windows and doors open and I would put my pillow on the window sill just to try and catch a passing breeze. No one had air conditioning, so it wasn’t unusual to us. We even played outside and rode our bikes in the heat. It’s just the way life was. We, of course, would wipe the sweat, pass around the garden hose and some of us would even draw water from the well and pass around the dipper. Air conditioning has really made a big difference in the way we handle the heat now-a-days. I don’t think I would be much good without mine now.

12 sweetbarth { 07.21.11 at 12:20 am }

This heat mess is just a sign of the times, and the worst is yet to come, all this and the financial mess the government is in, is enough to drive a person crazy.

13 cindy { 07.20.11 at 7:01 pm }

It’s very hot here in Kansas now and several people have died from the heat already, PLEASE check on your elderly neighbors daily.

14 Jean Middleton { 07.20.11 at 5:03 pm }

1936 was the year i was born .i remember my parents telling how hot it was. they would take a cot and sleep outside . one night a storm came up and they had to take the cot and run in house.

15 corey o { 07.20.11 at 2:47 pm }

@ Mrs. Groves, You must be young because the summer of 1980 was an extreme summer as well with temps hitting 110 in OK City. And !988 was the 9th highest summer since records have been kept. All these so called professionals making up new words such as the heat index and the media blowing everything out of preportion is what scares people. Summers have all ways been hot and will continue to be hot and people will and can die from the heat it’s the way our bodies work so take my advice and stay hydrated and indoors as much as possible.

16 Janet groves { 07.20.11 at 1:24 pm }

Its the hottest I can remember people
getting sick.Garden cooking only tomato
left.

17 Katrina Darden { 07.20.11 at 12:10 pm }

alot of people are having hard times and can’t even aford the ac its scary the heat wave going on, think we have a ways to go before its done, California is pretty nice right now, glad to be able to get to lakes for water, Texas lakes are drying up fast. count your blessings and lend a hand to someone in need! even if its a glass of water!

18 corey o { 07.20.11 at 11:19 am }

@ Carl R. , No sir. Celestial mechanics is as predictable as our daily weather patterns and since we cannot predict the weather there is no way we can predict what a shift on the axes will cause. 75 years ago the temp reached 120 degrees but in 1913 temps reached 134 degrees so what does that tell us. It tells us that it gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter. What I find funny is the way the American Meteorological Society has adopted a new way of telling how hot it is and it’s called the heat index. I get a kick out of people believing such a thing and to listen to the meteorlogist warn of this heat index is a scary tactic, have not figured out why they would do this. The way the outside temp feels to me is different then the way it feels to you. I worked out doors most my life so I can or could take the heat but you get a person who steps outside once a day it would feel horrible. So just like the theories of the Greeks and Newton concerning our world they still can’t prove as todays meteroligist can’t prove what tomorrow will bring.

19 joelle kelly { 07.20.11 at 10:42 am }

I believe this is just the beginning and we are going to see alot of this heat every year, so get your AC`s up and Running, its only going to get worse …

20 Carl R. { 07.20.11 at 10:29 am }

Looks like a normal weather pattern, but to the outer edge of normal would be the way to look at it. Does this have anything to do with our location in the eliptical pattern of our orbit you discussed in the past? I believe it was Apsidal Precession. Are we in a wobble that has changed the tilt angle to the sun different this year?

21 Scarlette { 07.20.11 at 10:22 am }

Is there a state that’s having a normal year (winter ’10-summer’11)?

22 Km Koesler { 07.20.11 at 9:54 am }

Ok, Ok. I’ll stop b!#@hing about how bad the summer of 1980 was.

23 steven louton { 07.20.11 at 9:20 am }

This is just another normal summer in San Antonio, Texas.
I am wondering what kind of winter this will bring?

24 marie g Maroney { 07.20.11 at 8:39 am }

Let’s hope this years heat wave doesn’t turn into another 1936

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