These days of low-to-mid 90s F, high humidity temperatures got you down? Why that’s nothing!
The hottest day in New York City history was eighty-five years ago last week — on July 9, 1936, when temperatures reached an agonizing 106 degrees, measured from the Central Park weather observatory.
This broke the record set on August 7, 1918 when New Yorkers experienced a catastrophic 104 degrees. (As if World War One and the Spanish Flu weren’t enough to suffer through that year.)
In neither of these years was there widespread air conditioning although the concept was quite familiar to those during the Great Depression. Upscale movie theaters and restaurants had a form of air conditioning by the mid 1930s but home use was too expensive at this time.
So on the hottest day in New York City history, most people had to forge through the day anyway they could — without the luxury of artificially cooled air.
That 106 number was hit after a series of thermometer-breaking days that week.
According to the New York Daily News, “heat was humanly bearable only because the humidity, at 44 percent, was low. If it were twice as high … human life would be almost impossible.”
And the New York Times chimed in with a startling visual. “In the canyons of the financial district men and women reported the heat waves visible.”
Hundreds did die throughout the northeast United States that week due to the heat as well as several in the city, including two boys who drowned in the park lakes on July 10.
It was so hot that Mayor Fiorello La Guardia let out all city employees from work at 1:45 pm and thousands of WPA workers were given a half-day.
Fire hydrants were pried open in every neighborhood. In Red Hook, Brooklyn and in many other places, the hydrants lowered the water pressure so much that residents above the second floor were unable to get water in their homes.
And on Park Avenue “so many hydrants were in emergency use that the waters mounted above the curb and the cars splashed through six and eight inches of it.” [Times]
“In the great shopping districts in the Thirties [Herald Square], the pavements became so soft in the late afternoon that the crosswalks were dotted with rubber heals that were caught in the asphalt and tar as women passed by. In some spots the asphalt blistered.” [Times, 9/10/36]
The only relief seemed to be the city parks and beaches which people duly exploited — day or night. “Coney Island, the Rockaways and other metropolitan beaches again had their hundreds of thousands of city folks cooling off in salt water, and they including thousands who had remained all night on the Bach sand.”
In fact tens of thousands of New Yorkers, looking for relief, slept in city parks throughout the night. The mayor authorized most parks to remain open and police were directed not to harass people who slept on benches or on the ground.
And even Robert Moses flew in for the rescue, authorizing that all city swimming pools remain open until midnight.
From the Times: “On the Lower East Side traffic was seriously impeded as small armies of persons emerged from tenement houses with chairs, boxes and even beds which they set up in the streets. Other thousands, including young children usually in bed by 9 o’clock, lined the East River waterfront.”
One jokester at the Daily News tried a bit of stunt journalism on that hot day by trying to fry an egg on the sidewalk in front of Queens Borough Hall. After watching the broken egg on the sidewalk for 15 minutes — runny and uncooked — the crowd left dejected.