Richard H. Thomas write an article, From Porch to Patio. (Published in The Palimpsest, journal of the Iowa State Historical Society, in 1975), in which he explains how our American culture has changed since the 19th century from front porches to back patios. There are social implications to this change. Families used to sit on their front porches and enjoy each other’s company and that of their neighbors. Sometime in the 1950’s as more subdivisions came into existence this changed. Then houses were built with no front porch but a back porch. There was a sense in which people were closing themselves into their house and now not interacting with their neighbors.
The first home I grew up in was back the lane of my grandparent’s farm and we had a front porch. I remember playing out there. You could see far from our porch and only one house in the distance. It was magical to me, like I was the queen of that world.
When my parents built our new house in the mid 50’s, we moved further up the lane and closer to my grandparent’s farmhouse. Our closest neighbors were my grandparents and aunts and uncle who still lived in the farmhouse, an older great-aunt who lived in the next house by herself and my cousins who moved into our house further down the lane. We had a flagstone porch up to the front door. But we never sat out there. We were across from a neighboring farmer’s field and you could see part of the road in the distance but not much else. We did though use that porch to take lots of pictures. My high school and college graduation pictures were taken there. There is also a picture of dad with his children in our Easter best the year he died.
We did have a breezeway though between the main house and the garage. For most of the time, that area was open and later we enclosed it with windows. In the warm weather it was a great place to play, to sit and feel the breeze and to visit with company. I remember we often made homemade ice cream there with our aunts and uncle who regularly visited us.
Two of the houses on the property did have porches but honestly as farmers, there was so much work to do I rarely saw people sitting out on the front porch. Yes, it was open when all the grandchildren came, 18 of us but at the farm, I would say the kitchen was the central location for family and visitors. Also living on a farm, back a lane, it wasn’t like people would be walking up the road and so you would invite them in.
I did see the difference though when my mom sold that house, in the mid 70’s and we moved into a subdivision. No neighbors brought greetings when we moved in but as a matter of fact, someone came to complain about our cars on the road as we were moving things in. It was a new experience for us because we weren’t used to having “strangers” so close to us. We did though get to know who our neighbors were and occasionally shared things in emergencies. There was no front porch, but an open car port where we often ate and sat out at night.
When I bought my first house, I moved less than a mile from my mom. The neighbor across the street was helpful and his 5-year-old daughter often came over to visit. On one side of me was another neighbor who was helpful and occasionally brought me steamed crabs! I had no front porch but a back one that I occasionally sat out on and read. It had a nice view of the farm I was backed up against and it also had a huge backyard. Growing up on a farm, I have always liked space and enjoyed the yard, complete with a stream.
When I moved to South Caroling I purchased a home, which was built in 1948 and it had a screened in back porch and an open area in front. I bought it from an 80-year-old school teacher, who, like me appreciated the privacy. I did get to know the helpful fellow across the street who cut up the tree limb when it fell in the back yard and he would watch over things for me when I was gone. On the right side, was a woman as old as my mom who I would often check on and take vegetables from my garden to her. On the other side however, there were renters and though I lived there 14 years I never had a conversation with them but then again there was a natural border of trees and shrubbery. I used the back screened in porch to entertain when the weather permitted. I owned the wooded lot behind my house so I loved to sit out on that porch and read, play the guitar or listen to music. For me, I liked the privacy but it did not help to build relationships with the neighbors.
My youngest sister built her house on farm land and has a front porch, three different porches on the second floor, in addition to a back yard patio. Neighbors have to go back a lane to get to the house but it has a very inviting architecture, inside and out. Each porch has its own purpose and I have spent time on all but the one off of the master bedroom. We’ve talked on the front porch which has a wonderful view, watched fireworks with my nephew on the second floor front one, had quite a few barbeques with family and friends on the back patio and I have had read on the porch off of ‘my bedroom’ on the back-end of the second floor. All of the porches have a wonderful view and some are small, for those quiet times when you want to read, or be by yourself. All have chairs and rockers and make great places for you to have a conversation with someone. My sister and her husband purposely built these porches, each with a different purpose. In a previous post, I wrote a quote from Thomas about how our homes reflect what we think a home should be and they may be viewed as a “statement of the way personal and social life is organized”. While I don’t believe my sister ever read Thomas, she and I have discussed architecture enough that I know she feels it does reflect what we believe.
We as a culture have pulled inward and maybe that has been good to help build our families. But have we lost some of the openness that the front porch used to have. My mom grew up in Baltimore City and while she never talked about a front porch, she did talk about the stoop and those marble steps. She had to keep them sparkling. She and her friends would play on them. When it was hot the family would sit out there and then talk to the neighbors. It was on those steps that she and her girlfriend cried the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked. They were afraid their dads were going to war.
Porches are for quiet times of reflection, for relaxation, for drinking a cold drink on a hot day, for putting our feet up, to be ourselves. They are for curling up with a good book. Sometimes they are for getting away to be alone, to think or pray. Porches are for being with family, telling stories and playing games. Sometimes they are loud as people laugh til they cry or sing their hearts out. Porches are for entertaining, enjoying friends and getting to know people. They allow us to open our homes and ourselves to others so we can get to know each other. Sometimes God uses a conversation on a porch to change a life, to create a friendship, to build a family or a marriage.
How are you using your porches?