The Rise and Decline
 of the
American Front Porch

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The Rise and Decline of the American Front Porch

In 1910, you could easily find streets in most American towns on which every house had a front porch. Today, houses are far more likely to have a garage facing the street and a deck in the back yard. Those who can afford them are likely to have houses in secluded locations on large lots, isolating them from neighbors. 

The front porch was a popular setting for family portraits, partly because it was a large enough space to gather large groups and because there was plenty of light in the days before strobes.

Why did the front porch develop as a distinctive form of American architecture? Why has it all but disappeared? 

Front porches became popular for several reasons. For one thing, people didn't have air conditioning, and when it got hot, it made sense to sit outside. "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." 

Another reason might simply be that people had more money and could build houses that went beyond crude shelters. Front porches became more common before the Civil War as new technology made milled lumber cheaper. Also, new "balloon frame" construction using small boards milled to standard lengths replaced more expensive and complicated timber framing. With more wealth and leisure, a place to sit outside and relax in the evenings seemed like a good idea, within the means of more and more people.

There were other influences working on people, too. Early in the nineteenth century, the landscape became a popular genre of painting. People awakened a bit more to the majesty and grandeur of nature. Writers, such as New England Transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson, had written passionately about nature as a source of purity, often defiled by the noise, ugliness and squalor of early industrial landscapes. The influence of such artists moved through society, enticing people to look for satisfactions in being outside. 

Meanwhile, housing designs developed for a consumer market were replacing vernacular architecture. At the beginning of the twentieth century, more and more people were getting their ideas for home construction from published pattern books, featuring houses designed by professional architects. Like other artists, many architects had begun to see the porch as a way of linking the house to nature. Hundreds of inexpensive designs for houses with front porches were available throughout the country.

Also during this period, more and more people moved from the country to towns and cities. After the isolation of life on farms without good roads and automobiles or telephones and televisions, the presence of other people could be comforting and welcome. At the same time, the congestion of urban living could make people feel they were losing their privacy. The front porch was a place in between the public life of the street and the private life of the home's interior. It was more private than the street but less intimate than the parlor. People often did business there, talking with a salesman or a hired hand. It was a place where neighbors saw one another and were present to one another.

After World War II, porches began disappearing from new houses. Maybe it was the automobile. Noisy vehicles rushing along the streets made the experience of nature less tranquil and pure. The cars also isolated the neighbors, so that instead of meeting them you were on stage. As they drove by they could see you sitting there but they couldn't say "hello" or pause for a visit.

Cars also made it easier for people to move farther out of town. More and more people escaped the town and city, dreaming now of a backyard in the suburbs. Many of the houses put the garage in front of the house, facing the street like a barricade. 

Television and air conditioning no doubt played a part, making the interior of the house more inviting. 

But maybe people were also becoming more individualistic and less communal-minded. As family ideals of nature and community became more important to people, they began building an America of houses close together, all with front porches facing the street. 

And as those ideals faded, the front porch began disappearing. People put barbeques in the back yard, where they had more privacy. They dreamed of houses in the country, where they could neither see nor hear any neighbors. Or they turned on the television, where they could be alone and safe, watching images of other humans who were not really present.

Michael Umphrey

1910 Expedition Home