Baltimore City

Jacques Kelly: Baltimore summers before the advent of air conditioning were just 'Too Darn Hot'

Passengers line up for a bus at Baltimore's Trailways Terminal in 1974. The bus station was one of the few places where white and black Baltimore mixed freely.

Baltimore weekends during July and August could be sleepy. Before air conditioning was widely introduced, the downtown department stores observed early closings on Saturdays before Labor Day. Patrons filled movie theaters that were mechanically cooled. The handful of tourists the city attracted — precious few after Preakness — seemed to be here because their car broke down between New York and Washington.

Lack of air conditioning forced city dwellers to their porches, backyards and front steps. Those summer evenings allowed a neighborliness that would disappear as the days grew shorter after school resumed. There was an old-fashioned intimacy as residents of a block took to summer chairs or met with acquaintances at the corner store on a post-dinner run for a snowball or ice cream. Newspaper readers could pick up a late afternoon paper with afternoon ball scores, stocks and racing results or, after about 9:30 p.m., the first edition of The Sun.


In an era with far less crime, pedestrians felt more secure darting out at 9 p.m. when the sun had yet to quit. Reassuring, too, was the sound floating through the windows and screen doors of an Orioles game being broadcast on a radio.

Memorial Stadium’s lights cast a glow over 33rd Street and Ednor Gardens on game nights. A home run whipped up the fans and produced a roar audible as far south as 25th Street.


The old Trailways downtown bus station did a brisk summer weekend trade. It was the portal for people who wanted a weekend on the Eastern Shore or beyond. Trailways buses could get you to New York, Philadelphia and a pre-gambling Atlantic City on the cheap. Those coaches could also deposit you in Queenstown, Easton, Ocean City, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth, all unserved by railroad.

There was service to Camp LeJeune, and during the Vietnam War a steady stream of Marine recruits passed through aluminum doors of West Fayette Street. Cabbies lined up outside the station were roadway wizards at fast home delivery.

The station was a mixing point for the races that did not always overlap and come together. Black and white Baltimore met here and found a common point of concern. Would I get a seat? Was the bus on time? Would the family member I was supposed to meet here show up as promised? Against the odds — a jam on Route 50’s Kent Narrows Bridge could undermine a bus arrival — those Trailways vehicles seemed to make good on their schedules.

The Trailways parking slips filled with family and friends as the buses arrived and departed, swinging on a curve around the back walls of the old Brager-Gutman department store. It was a place of ardent goodbye hugs, a spot where fathers helped their precious daughters load suitcases into cargo holds.

On a breathless and brutal July night, West Fayette Street in downtown Baltimore seemed like the hottest block in a hot city. No wonder composer Cole Porter memorialized Baltimore’s climate in his 1948 show, “Kiss Me, Kate.” Specifically, he placed singers in Marion Street, the alley behind the old Ford’s Theatre — and the nearby Trailways station — to sing his sly and catchy anthem to Baltimore’s weather, “Too Darn Hot.”

What people wore reflected the summer too. No matter how much you ironed cotton and linen, those pre-synthetics fabrics wrinkled, but that was part of a pleasantly rumpled summer look. Seersucker was something of an exception — it was cooler and somehow resisted wrinkling. Before baseball caps invaded, men wore sporty straw caps or hats. They came in shades from dark cocoa and black to a bleached white parchment.

Women’s hats were growing less obvious. This was the era of very high hair tormented with hairspray and Chesapeake Zone humidity.