The Front Porch
I started thinking about front porches. Yep, not something that is a conversation topic at dinner every night, but growing up in the South a lot of us older people can remember when the front porch, and in some cases the back porch, was an important and useful part of the house. The front porch today is an architectural component, like a dormer, but with little utilitarian usage for many.
While many reasons can be cited by some as to why people don’t sit out on the front porch anymore, even if they have one, I believe I have discovered the two main reasons in the South that the usage of the porch has fallen into disfavor: air conditioning and bugs! Drive-by shootings could be another reason in some places around the country, also.
So, I thought I would shed some light on this seldom discussed cultural heritage since there would not likely be much already out there on the subject. I had an original idea! Write something about porches, something no one else has ever thought of doing!
So I sat down at the old computer and clicked on DuckDuckGo and typed in The Front Porch and to my shock, there are hundreds of things already out there and a lot of high level research on the subject. Darn it!
A Ms. Renee Kahn has a book entitled Preserving Porches where she looks at the history of porches in the US. An article called The Evolution of the American Porch from http://Xroads.virginia.edu/ (affiliated with the Department of English at UVA) attributes the increased use of porches as a home design item took place as a result of the African influence and was not part of the heritage of the early settlers from Europe. The decades before the Civil War saw an increase in their construction and usage.
Driving by the old homes in the Sandy Point area, many had no porches originally. In the case of my Grandparents their original house was built in 1860 and the additions and porches were added later.
Later homes started having porches which might be no more than a stoop like structure extended four or five feet from the main house to huge spaces as big as ten feet or more and sometimes taking in multiple sides of the home. These might have swings, chairs and small tables for serving tea, lemonade or Mint Julips. The last “farm house” my father’s family lived in, blown away by a tornado after they moved away, had a big porch that could accommodate the entire family and the children playing on a rainy day or late evening when the cool breezes were blowing.
Sometimes porches were where pipes were smoked and tobacco chewed. Stories were told and friends were greeted on the porch. Peas and butter beans would be spread out to “get the heat out” before hauling them to the market or having a sit around where everyone had a bowl and shelled and shelled and shelled until all the vegetables were ready to be canned, frozen or eaten! Sometimes there was a glider that was great for naps! They were often the destination for the “first date”.
The front porch may have been only for special occasions if the house had a “back porch”. That porch was often screened in and the household work was done free of flies and gnats and mosquitos. Screened porches weren’t as pretty as the big rambling front ones with big columns but got a lot more use.
The back porch was where the shoes were taken off and left till the next day. The pie safe might be on the porch, and chicken feed and brooms and the kindling and firewood could be found there. It was also where the ice cream churn made that fresh hand churned ice cream!
Until the Civil War, the only way to cover a window and let air in without bugs was cheese cloth. But there was a product originally manufactured in a fine wire mesh in the mid-18th century to make flour sifting sieves and screens for cheese manufacturing. After the Civil War, some bright person figured out that that mesh would work well on windows and later porches. A new industry was born.
The screen wire made life bearable from all the bugs but took away from the aesthetics.
The front porch was at its peak and on Sundays. Sitting on the front porch was like an “open for business” sign: people that you knew would see you on the porch and take that as an invitation to stop, visit, chat, and have an iced tea or some of that ice cream if some had just been churned.
It was a good place to play checkers and pick guitars and sing songs. It was a good place to watch the rain moving across the freshly planted corn. It was a good place to watch that strange man walking down the dirt road and up into the yard: my father returning home from Word War II and he had gotten off the bus up on the main road. I did not know who he was.
Then, the old houses started getting window air conditioning units. A cool room on a hot day seemed better than fanning on the porch. People slowly started disappearing from the front porch and the TV did not help either. More to do, out of the heat.
Now, we don’t know our neighbors, are suspicious if someone walks up uninvited, and now we use the front porch, if we have one, to showcase a couple of nice rocking chairs and some flower pots and we pretend to welcome all to come “up on the porch”.
We have more acrimony and division than ever in this country. Names are called and hate spewed. Maybe that would not happen if we went back out and sat on the front porch more and hung out that “open for business” sign. A churn full of ice cream might not be bad either.
We talk about tolerance. That usually means we want and expect people to accept the things, people, ideologies, and philosophies that we accept. But, for too many, it does not work the other way around.