I have many friends who live in relatively new houses, houses with patios and decks and a front entrance that presents a barrier against the outside world rather than an inviting front porch. I remember the days when front porches had porch swings, Adirondack chairs, even hammocks slung between the house and railing. Porches where families sat after supper and watched the world go by, greeted neighbors out for strolls, kept an eye on the kiddies riding their tricycles along the sidewalk before being called in for bedtime. In summer, there were sometimes cots where toddlers took their afternoon naps or someone slept on hot nights when the upstairs bedrooms were too hot and airless.
Porches were where teenagers gathered out of sight and (they hoped) out of hearing of their elders as they discussed all the goings-on in their world. It was the site of many a first kiss as a young lady said goodnight to her very first love. They were where the newspaper landed early in the morning, and where the insulated box sat waiting for the milkman to leave two quarts of milk and a pint of cream before dawn. Front porches provided the setting for countless tea parties and paper doll fantasies attended by little girls, and long, hot afternoons whiled away with comic books and Parcheesi games.
At some point in the 1950s, porches began the long spiral toward oblivion. Many front porches had already been essentially eliminated by then; screened in or turned into sun rooms with half-walls and lots of windows. Impossible to heat because most were built over spidery crawl spaces rather than solid foundations. Some were completely closed up to provide walk-in storage or entrance halls with coat closets. Others were simply torn off completely and replaced by the newly-popular picture windows and a couple juniper bushes in imitation of the more “modern” houses that were being built at the time.
The house I was born in was located on a corner lot and had two front porches, though neither was actually in the front of the house facing the street that was designated as the address. One porch was to the east of the living room but opened directly into the kitchen. There was also a small, open porch leading from the kitchen to the back yard. The other front porch opened directly into the west side of the living room and faced the side street where there would have been strolling neighbors and kids on roller skates on summer evenings, except that the sidewalk was never paved, so the porch looked out on a narrow strip of lawn and not much else.
The next house we lived in was, I’m pretty sure, two small houses joined together, as ceilings were not the same height and there were two front porches which my dad joined together and screened in to make two “rooms” across the front of the house where we slept all summer after moving the beds down from the stuffy bedrooms in the finished-off attic.
My third home (and the last until I was married) had been built in 1904 and had a traditional front porch with railings and a porch swing and a mailbox on the post by the front steps. There was no milk-box, as Dad kept two milk cows, along with a few pigs, a calf or two, a pony, chickens, a cage full of rabbits and several pets on the 10 acres that went with the house. He soon closed in the back porch and built a semi-circle of patio under a huge maple tree that shaded the back of the house and half the lawn. But the front porch with its railing and wooden steps remained unchanged. Again, there was no sidewalk and, since our acreage was on the edge of town, little to no foot traffic bringing neighbors past for a chat on summer evenings.
By the time I was in college, most people had abandoned the front porches and moved to the back yard where there was soon a jumble of aluminum lawn chairs and barbeque grills, metal hammock stands, rather unsatisfactory portable “swimming pools” and swing sets with attached slides. The possible necessity of fencing in a dog or corralling a toddler brought on a maze of backyard fences and closely-planted hedges. This, of course, had the effect of shutting oneself away from the neighbors and turning the back yard into another “room.” Women who once talked with their neighbors while hanging the laundry now stayed indoors watching soap operas while waiting for another batch of clothes to come out of the dryer. The kids didn’t get together after supper to draw hop-scotch games, jump rope or roller-skate on the sidewalk, but played in the backyard sandbox, swing-set or wading pool before going in to watch television after dark. The teens went to the mall, and nobody had a front porch to sit on – or a reason to sit there.