It was the hottest day in Cincinnati history, during the hottest week in Cincinnati history and that torrid record still stands 85 years later. The summer of 1934 was a hot one all around the United States, but the focus of the heat—as if a magnifying glass was aiming a blistering sunbeam at us—was the Ohio Valley around Cincinnati. A couple of days in June topped the 100-degree mark, but the real inferno started around July 18 when the mercury ran above 94 degrees. Next day, it was 98.6, setting a record for July 19.
On July 20, Cincinnati meteorologists put 104.8 degrees into the record book. For the next seven days, Cincinnati’s official temperature topped 100 degrees every single day, setting records never since exceeded.
In those pre-air-conditioned days, the city was totally unprepared. Cincinnatians began dying at an alarming rate, some succumbing to the heat as they slept. Not only was the daytime heat unbearable, the night time offered no relief. On July 21, 22, and 23, the highest low temperatures for each of those days were recorded at around 80 degrees.
Few locations offered any sort of relief. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [21 July 1934], the public pools in the city were worse than nothing at all:
A blazing sun, on top of the excessive heat, sent thousands in search of relief. Swimming pools and beaches were thronged for most of the afternoon. The children in playground wading pools around the city were not so fortunate. The shallow water was quickly heated by the sun and became unbearable.
People jumped into their automobiles, hoping to generate some cooling wind, but the heat caused accidents when drivers lapsed into sleep as the scorching air wrapped around them like a suffocating blanket.
When Mrs. Retta Burns, 32 years old, 4225 Thirty-first Street, fainted yesterday, the automobile she was driving crashed into a parked car in front of 2963 Linwood Road. She was not injured. Police said the excessive heat probably caused Mrs. Burns’ collapse.
At night, some people abandoned their houses altogether, dragging pillows to the nearest park. Those who stayed home lay on sheets that felt as if they had just been ironed. According to the Cincinnati Post [21 July 1934], no one got any sleep:
Indoor temperatures remained in the 90s, and, between fitful snatches of sleep, most people spent the night in search of a breath of air. Many tried to sleep on porches. Walking through the streets of the congested residential areas downtown late at night one could hear muffled voices of sleepless inhabitants coming from darkened windows.
On Sunday, July 22, the Enquirer announced that Cincinnati, while setting an all-time highest temperature of 108.5 degrees the day before, had been the hottest location east of the Mississippi River. On Sunday, Cincinnati would reach its second-highest recorded temperature at 107.7 degrees. Those two days remain the hottest in Cincinnati history.
In addition to the temperature, Cincinnati set records in heat-related deaths, with as many as 40 fatalities recorded on some days. People died at work, at home, or just standing on the street.
Electric fans proved useless in these astronomical temperatures, doing little more than moving hot air around. The city’s acting health commissioner, Dr. Owen C. Fisk, had nothing to offer other than a suggestion to ignore the heat. According to the Post [21 July 1934]:
First he advised Cincinnatians to quit looking at thermometers. ‘Keep cool mentally as well as physically,’ he said.
Every little degree counted and was leveraged as marketing. With mobs flocking to swimming resorts, the Cincinnati Zoo offered faint hope via the Cincinnati Enquirer [23 July 1934]:
The Cincinnati Zoo claimed the distinction of being one of the coolest places in town with a recording of only 100 degrees at 3 o’clock as against the official recording of 107 degrees at the Clifton Observatory at the same time.
The Gidding Company advertised that it was Cincinnati’s only “all air-conditioned store.” An optometrist advertised air-conditioned fitting rooms. Railroads offered air-conditioned cars for out-of-town trips. Conspicuously absent from the list of air-conditioned places were movie theaters, which had not yet caught the trend for “store-bought air.”
Throughout the week, reports trickled in from farms in the outlying areas. One farmer after another reported crops past saving, dried up in the unrelenting meteorological furnace.
The suffering Midwest, including Cincinnati, made the front page as far away as Los Angeles, with heat-focused headlines cheek by jowl with the news that bank robber John Dillinger had been shot outside a Chicago movie theater. Nationwide strikes by workers in several industries also claimed headline space, but the heat won out.
Finally, a thunderstorm on Thursday, July 26 dropped the temperature from 100 degrees to 75 degrees within an hour, and the whole city rejoiced. Well, almost. By the end of the heat wave, Cincinnati’s health department had recorded 139 heat-related deaths and thousands of cases of heat prostration. Temperatures for that week averaged 105 degrees.