The Cultural Significance of the American Front Porch

"The twilight was blurred and soft. Supper was almost ready and the smell of cabbage floated to them from the open hall. All of them were together except Hazel, who had not come home from work, and Etta, who still lay sick in bed. Their Dad leaned back in the chair with his sock-feet on the bannisters. Bill was on the steps with the kids. Their Mama sat on the swing fanning herself with the newspaper. Across the street a girl in the neighborhood skated up and down the sidewalk on one roller skate. The lights on the block were just beginning to be turned on, and far away a man was calling someone." --From McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, in Out on the Porch

In Ernest Pickering's The Homes of America, Pickering states that "a history of American homes is necessarily a history of American life" (Pickering 4). Concurrently, it may be stated that the history of the American front porch is itself a history of American life as well. For the American porch has, in its time as an American cultural symbol, represented the cultural ideals of our nation. This section will explore these ideals and the cultural significance of the American front porch.

The most striking cultural significance of the front porch is its connection to nature and the land surrounding it. Throughout the history of our nation, Americans have idealized nature and land. The first writers of our country, such as Crevecour and Jefferson, praised the young agrarian nation, whose natural conditions provided for a better life. From the Transcendetalists to Frederick Jackson Turner, Americans have always been aware of the special attributes land and nature gave their nation. For a majority of our nation's history, America did exist as an agrarian nation, and it praised its "purple mountain majesties" and endless forests. Yet along with the idealization of nature came an ideal to control it. Americans "manifest destiny" induced them to conquer nature, by building towns and cities, clearing forests, and otherwise civilizing the land. The front porch provided a compromise for these two opposing American ideals and connected human control, in the form of the house, to nature and the wilderness outside it. In essence, the porch "served as a vital transition between the uncontrollable out-of-doors and the cherished interior of the home"(Out on the Porch, 1). It will be suggested in the next section that when the outdoors became unappealing, the front porch would disappear. Thus it may be seen that the American front porch demonstrated Americans' simultaneous ideals of nature and its control.

In many ways, the front porch represented the American ideal of family. The porch, in essence, was an outdoor living room, where the family could retire after the activities of a long day. In the evenings, as the outdoor air provided a cool alternative to the stuffy indoor temperatures, the entire family would move to the front porch. The children might play in the front yard or the friendly confines of the neighborhood, while the parents rocked in their chairs, dismissing the arduous labors and tasks of the day into relaxation and comfort. Stories might be told, advice garnered, or songs sung. Whatever the traditions and manners of the family might be could be offered in this setting. What the family room or t.v. room of post World War II America would become, existed first as the front porch. As stated in an introductory quote, the front porch was truly "a place for family and friends to pass the time"(Out on the Porch 65).

The American front porch further represented the ideal of community in America. 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. For "the master's farm business, the mistress's selections of goods and produce, the home craftsmen's sales, and sundry negotiations of the cooler sort (with the hired man, the foreman, the slave or house servant, the distressed or disgruntled neighbor, even with the unpredictable stranger from the muddy road) could all be conducted in the civil atmosphere offered by the shade of a prominent porch, apart from the sleeping and feeding quarters and without serious risk to the family's physical and psychic core"(Out on the Porch 1). The porch further fostered a sense of community and neighborliness. In the evenings, as people moved outdoors, the porch served to connect individuals. The neighbors from 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.

Between the rise of the front porch in the middle nineteenth century and its decline in the post World War II era, the front porch developed a cultural significance. It represented the cultural ideals of family, community, and nature. As these ideals would decline in importance in American culture, so would the porch. The overall factors and developments in this decline will be explored in the next section.