Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Where Did Porches Go?

Wisteria adorns this beautiful wrap-around porch with round columns.

Now that summer will soon be upon us, there is no time to lose to think about outdoor living space, which brings me to the topic of the porch. Time was that most new homes came with porches, no matter the size of the home. Porches offered an outdoor room where the family could sit together, children could play, older people could rock and watch, ladies could sew, bluestockings could read, teenagers could gab or cuddle in the evening, and people could gather for parties all summer long.

Porches, with their roof overhead, offered an outdoor refuge from rain and sun alike. The shade of the porch roof also helped keep down temperatures inside the house.

The 1950s saw the end of porches in new homes, ending the porch's 100-year reign as a necessary fixture in practically all new homes. Although some houses had porches in the colonial period, the porch did not become widespread until the 1840s and 1850s. Its popularity rose with the increase in leisure time in America, since it offered a cool and protected place for resting.

19th-century farmhouse with a porch.

Socially, the porch was the living room outside. "What the family room or TV room of post-World War II America would become, existed first as the front porch," notes the Evolution of the American Front Porch website.

New homes with porches in Collier, Pennsylvania, circa 1900.

The front porch also invited community. In towns, informal interaction with neighbors and friends could take place from the porch. As the website notes:
For the front porch existed as a zone between the public and private, an area that could be shared between the sanctity of the home and the community outside. It was an area where interaction with the community could take place. The neighbors from next door might stop by one's house, to sit on next door might stop by one's house, to sit on the porch and discuss both personal and community issues. The couple walking down the street might offer a passing "hello," as they passed house after house whose inhabitants rested outdoors. The porch brought the neighborhood and community together, by forcing interaction and an acute awareness of others. Indeed, the front porch and the ideal of community in America had developed into a congruous union.

Greenwood Plantation House, Louisiana

Slave quarters at Evergreen Plantation, Louisiana.

The decline of the porch can be attributed to new technologies that brought both prohibition to porch sitting and new sites for leisure. In towns at least, with the arrival of the auto and its fumes and noise, the front porch became less pleasant. In the early 1950s, the arrival of the television brought the family indoors for entertainment. Lastly, air conditioning squelched the impulse to sit outside on the porch and enjoy an evening breeze.

By the 1960s, reports Evolution, the front porch had disappeared in new homes. It began to be replaced with side porches hidden behind shrubbery or decks in backyards. The disappearance of the front porch increased family privacy at the expense of community life. Family life also frayed with the centrifugal forces brought by entertainment media in the home and a new focus on individualism, rather than on family and community.

The good news is that porches are beginning to re-emerge in new homes. Seaside, Florida, for instance, is one of several planned communities in the United States today where a front porch is mandatory. I, for one, would be pleased to see a porch revival. I say: The more porches the merrier!

Ruskin Street in Seaside, Florida.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating as always, Linda! For me the front porch is quintessential America, and I dream of having one on my house one day. I love the idea of interacting with neighbours and think it's terribly sad that in our current society this activity of sitting and socialising and being part of a community has become obsolete in the face of more solitary and confined activities. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a porch revival? I don't think it would work in England though - our cramped housing means that many houses have front doors that open straight onto the pavement unfortunately - no room for a porch!

Linda said...

Thanks for your comment! It is difficult with homes that come right up to the street. But I remember in the movie The Happy Breed, homes had beautiful back yards with gardens. Although there were walls between the houses the backyards seemed, in that movie during the 1940s, the back yards seemed very sociable and the gardens lovely. But it is definitely the case that the front porch was an icon of Americana. I hope it comes back.

Anonymous said...

Oh, honey, this is a topic that is close to my heart. My family lives in an apartment right now as we are looking for a new home. I MISS porches. I remember sitting on my Nana's porch ALL summer long! What a precious memory! My husband agrees and we are looking for a home that has a porch. Someday when the children are older and we are able to build it will have a wrap around for sure and certain! Blessings!