Front porch: Place of rest, simple joys

Front porches appear to be experiencing a welcome revival.

If electric bills and gasoline prices continue to climb, even more Americans may relearn the simple pleasures of the front porch.

There was a time held fondly in the memories of older Americans when the front porch was where families relaxed, talked with neighbors and swapped stories while the children ran off excess energy before bedtime.

A story in the July 20-26 American Profile magazine describes the rediscovery of our nearly forgotten front-porch culture: “By the 1880s, nearly every house in America, whether it was a humble shotgun-style or a Queen Anne mansion, boasted a front porch.”

The front porch was such a part of American life that the 1880 presidential campaign featured the “front-porch campaign” of Republican James Garfield, who sat on his front porch and met anyone who wanted to drop by and talk to him. He won.

The article quoted Michael Dolan, author of “The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place,” who said African slaves were the first in America to universally build houses with porches. Other influences came from Italy, Spain and India.

Whatever its origins, at one time the front porch was an important part of life for nearly all Americans.

A cool place to sleep

As one of the diminishing group of Americans who remember a time before air-conditioning and television, I recall that front porches were an important part of my formative years.

When I was a youngster, my bed was on a screened sleeping porch, which I considered superior to the sleeping conditions in the house, where it was more difficult to feel night breezes. Night breezes in the middle of Texas summers helped evaporate the sweat, which was a blessing.

Sleeping porches used to be common in many parts of the country.

Years ago an old newspaper man told me that as boy he used to throw the morning newspaper when many people slept on their front porches. He entertained himself on his predawn rounds by delivering tossed wake-up calls of current events directly onto his sleeping customers.

Speaking of newspapers and front porches, I also have been told that there was a time when many newspaper subscriptions were sold to immigrants and others who could not read. They subscribed to an evening newspaper so they could come home from work and be seen by their neighbors sitting on their front porches “reading” the news.

Ice cream and socializing

The best part of front porches was their function as places for families to gather in the evenings for iced tea, lemonade and occasionally sliced watermelon or hand-cranked ice cream.

The children caught fireflies and played hide-and-seek or other games. Sometimes my uncle, a good baseball player, played catch with me until it got too dark.

Neighbors out for an after-dinner stroll would drop by to talk about the weather or their gardens.

Before we finally moved into a new house with air-conditioning and no front porch, the front porch of our old house had a swing on chains, a glider and several rocking chairs. When more neighbors showed up, the dining room chairs were brought out.

At first, only stores, movie theaters and other businesses had air conditioning. When it became affordable for homes, the days of America's front-porch culture were limited, along with a vital sense of community and belonging. TV and the movement to homes in the suburbs without sidewalks finished off front porches.

The American Profile article, however, says builders and home buyers are rediscovering the pleasures of front porches. It's the neighborly thing to do.