1936 : Killer Heat Wave Grips Detroit (July 8-14)

July 8, 2018 all-day

1936 was the first year that Detroit ever had consecutive days of triple digit temperature readings.

In 1936, air conditioning was a new luxury, and movie theaters were some of the few places that had it. Some theaters in Detroit stayed open all night so people could stay in the cool. Other Detroiters escaped the heat by visiting places such as Belle Isle for a swim. Ice blocks sold for a penny, and many people chose to sleep outside in places such as Cass Park rather than suffer in their cramped, non-air conditioned homes. Others resorted to cooling off in lakes and pools, and guzzling buckets of lemonade and beer.

Sadly, not all Detroiters “beat the heat” in 1936. The seven-day heat wave claimed at least 364 lives in the city. Most of the victims were elderly, but some infants and adults were stricken, as well. In the days before air conditioning became common, heat such as this could be especially deadly.

Elsewhere around the state, an additional 206 people — many of them farmhands toiling in the fields — perished. Several million dollars worth of crops had been ruined. Nationally, about 5,000 deaths would be blamed on the heat, with Michigan’s toll of 570 victims surpassed only by Ohio’s.

How could one keep cool at home in 1936? If you were lucky enough to afford one and could find one in stock, you could buy an electric Westinghouse fan for about $5. By 1937, Westinghouse was using coated fan blades that were quiet and lasted longer, and varying sizes were available for your desk, nightstand, or even your car dashboard. Staying cool was becoming a bit easier.


“Heat Wave Of ’36 Hits 75th Anniversary”, MIRS, July 31, 2014.

For another, see Richard Bak, “Michigan’s Killer Heat Wave”, Hour Detroit, July 2010.

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