Sitting on the front porch, visiting with family and friends or just catching a cooling breeze, used to be a regular part of summertime life, before air conditioning and television sent us all scooting back indoors. Come and sit awhile and reminisce with Jennifer about the front porches of yesteryear. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to dust off that old wicker rocker–the one that creaked so soothingly as you watched the fireflies in the dusk.
If you prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find a transcript of Episode 18.
God, Me, and Sweet Iced Tea by Rose Chandler Johnson
Transcript of Episode 18: Front Porch Life
Hello, Sparklers! Welcome to A Sparkling Vintage Life, where we talk about all things vintage and celebrate the grace and charm of an earlier era. I’m your host, Jennifer Leo, and this is Episode number eighteen.
I’m so happy you’ve stopped by to spend a few minutes with me. It’s the first week of July as I record this, so I’m wishing a slightly belated Happy Canada Day to our neighbors to the north, and a Happy Fourth of July to my American listeners.
Today I want to talk about front porches. And in this case you can translate “front porch” however you like. It could be a flight of cement stairs in the city, maybe a set of lawn chairs or a blanket on the ground in the front yard, a little balcony, or anything at all. For my purposes,I consider a front porch anything that (a) brings your family out of the house and (b) faces the street or the sidewalk or any place that potentially brings you into contact with your neighbors and people who are passing by.
Front-porch culture used to be a regular summer pastime in many parts of the US. Families would gather on the porch in the warm twilight and talk about their day, or maybe the adults would just sit and relax, watching the children play tag or chase fireflies on the front lawn. Mom or Grandma might bring out a pitcher of lemonade and tray of tall frosty glasses, or dishes of ice cream, maybe hand-cranked like we talked about recently, or something fun like popsicles. Maybe someone would bring out a guitar and strum gentle tunes (I got that idea from The Andy Griffith Show, set in that quintessential small town, Mayberry. I have a memory of Sheriff Andy bringing his guitar out on the porch in the warm North Carolina evening and singing some quiet song to Aunt Bee and Helen Crump in the moonlight. It’s possible he only did it on one episode, but that vision stuck with me all these years).
Because front porches faced the street, people could greet their neighbors, who likely were also sitting out on their own front porches. Maybe they’d wave you over, or you’d wave them over, and you’d make room for them to sit and visit a while the kids played together. You’d at least wave or smile at people passing by. And there were people passing by, taking walks after dinner, catching a bit of fresh air before turning in for the night. If the porch had a roof, and it usually did, you would be shaded from the sun, and could even sit outside if it was raining.
People enjoyed their front porches even as the seasons changed, just adding sweaters as the cooler evenings of autumn settled in, until the autumn chill became downright cold and chased them back inside for the winter.
Porches were also the setting for many a romance. Those hard wooden porch swings and metal gliding sofas might have been less than comfortable to sit on, but you’d forget all that if the right person was sitting on them with you. Even my own novel, You’re the Cream in My Coffee , set in the 1920s, features a romantic conversation set on a porch swing. As I understand it, concerned parents might switch the porch light on and off, or tap on the windowsill, to signal when it was time to say goodnight to one’s beloved and come inside.
Whatever happened to front-porch culture? Well, several things. Air conditioning, for one. After World War II a steadily increasing number of households added air conditioning, which made staying inside a cool house more comfortable than venturing outside. And then television also kept people indoors. A radio could be heard through an open window, but a television actually needed to be watched. I suppose a television set could be brought out onto the porch and plugged in by a cord through the window, but that seems like a lot of trouble.
Also, sometime in the fifties and sixties, outdoor culture moved to the back of the house instead of the front. Many people, including my family, built patios and decks off the backs of their houses instead of the street side, and children played in the backyard instead of the front. While this certainly increased privacy and was perhaps a little safer than letting your children play in the street, it was also less neighborly. I suppose you could still wave at your neighbors if they were in their backyards, but quite probably there was now a fence separating you. It was no longer easy to just wave them over, and you weren’t likely to wander over there without an invitation. Maybe the rapid rise of the automobile played a hand in moving outdoor culture to the back of the house instead of the front, because if you lived on a busy street it was no longer as pleasant to sit out front as it was when most of the traffic was pedestrian. I don’t know if that’s true, but it could be.
Another factor in the demise of front-porch culture, sadly, is the rise in crime. Frankly, you can’t safely sit out on your porch in areas where you’re likely to get shot at, which is something that happens far too often in far too many parts of our country. Years ago, people out on their porches served as a deterrent to crime, sort of like an informal Neighborhood Watch. But that worked mostly with petty crime like break-ins and vandalism, not drive-by shootings and gang warfare.
Back in 2006, National Public Radio did a series about front-porch culture, connecting it with debate and democracy. As a transitional space between the privacy of the home and the public nature of the street, the porch was a sort of middle ground where people could become acquainted and enjoy good fellowship with one another and talk over the issues of the day or of the community. For a while there was even a Professional Porch Sitters Union, dedicated to bringing back the best of front-porch culture, but recently I wasn’t able to find any current information about it, so I don’t know if it still exists. I’ll put a link to the NPR series in the show notes.
How can you bring back front-porch culture in your community? If you have a front porch, or a scrap of lawn or even a sidewalk, and if it’s safe in your area to do so, go outside and sit there. Smile and wave at people who pass by. Have an extra chair or to so that if someone stops to talk, you can invite them to sit. If you live way out in the country, as I do, you may have to be a little more deliberate about actually inviting neighbors over to share your porch, as they aren’t likely to even see or notice you otherwise. And if you live in an apartment building and don’t have a porch? Maybe set up a few chairs on the common lawn area, or in a nearby park. In the end, porch-sitting is not so much a reality as a state of mind. A state of mind that’s friendly, curious, and content to just sit for a spell, as the Mayberry people used to say, and watch the world go by.
How about you? Do you remember front porches? Do you have one? If so, do you ever use it? If you have memories of front-porch life, or even stories from your parents and grandparents, I’d love to hear them Leave a comment at sparklingvintagelife.com under Episode Eighteen, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
And I’ll be back in a moment with today’s grace note.
Today’s grace note is a little book called God, Me, and Sweet Iced Tea by Rose Chandler Johnson. This is a devotional book. It could be used as a daily devotional or just for when you need a little encouragement. It seems tailor-made for early mornings on the porch. Rose Chandler Johnson has a friendly, warm writing style, and reading her book feels a little like a friend talking to a friend. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
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And that’s it for today. Stop in again soon when we’ll be discussing another aspect of A Sparkling Vintage Life.