A Republic of Front Porches

front porch, republic, conservativism

ALEXANDRIA, VA. Names are important, and few can be more significant than what a new publication calls itself. Perhaps at first greeting the name will give pause, causing the new reader to think momentarily about what it means, how it came about, what its creators intended. After a time its explicit meaning will fade into the backdrop, becoming a label that is rarely reflected upon, barely registered, but still confers meaning – increasingly implicit – for the undertaking, and for those who originally named it, or who write under its banner. A name such as this one – Front Porch Republic – deserves some reflection before it fades into that subconscious space.

I can think of no better text by which to explore the meaning of our publication’s name than an old essay – one few have encountered and even fewer still would remember – that I read during my freshman year of college in a course taught by the man who became my mentor and dearest companion still, though he has passed from this vale – Wilson Carey McWilliams. I’ve never forgotten the essay – it impacted me then, and remains with me still. It was written by a man named Richard Thomas, and was entitled “From Porch to Patio.” (Published in The Palimpsest, journal of the Iowa State Historical Society, in 1975). It had such an effect on me not only because of what it taught me, but because so much of my childhood and young adulthood had involved being in various ways on our big front porch where I grew up in Windsor, CT. It was more than merely theory – it taught me about who I was, and why that was so.

In this simple but profound essay, Thomas explores the social implications of the architectural practice of building porches on the front of homes and its eventual abandonment in favor of patios behind the house (I’ve discussed this transition in relation to the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” in comparing Bedford Falls to Bailey Park). As with any central feature in our built environment, this is more than merely a passing fashion trend or a meaningless design change: the transition from porch to patio was one of the clearest and significant manifestations the physical change from a society concerned with the relationship of private and public things – in the Latin, res publica – to one of increasing privacy. The porch, as a physical bridge between the private realm of the house and the public domain of the street and sidewalk, was the literal intermediate space between two worlds that have been increasingly separated in our time, and hence increasingly ungoverned in both forms.

Thomas expresses clearly some of the social dimensions of the porch, and contrasts them with the patio. The porch, he wrote, “presented opportunities for social intercourse at several levels.”

When a family member was on the porch it was possible to invite the passerby to stop and come onto the porch for extended conversation. The person on the porch was very much in control of this interaction, as the porch was seen as an extension of the living quarters of the family. Often, a hedge or fence separated the porch from the street or board sidewalk, providing a physical barrier for privacy, yet low enough to permit conversation. The porch served many important social functions in addition to advertising the availability of its inhabitants. A well-shaded porch provided a cool place in the heat of the day for the women to enjoy a rest from household chores. They could exchange gossip or share problems without having to arrange a “neighborhood coffee” or a “bridge party.” The porch also provided a courting space within earshot of protective parents [for more on this important aspect, see Beth Bailey's From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America]. A boy and a girl could be close on a porch swing, yet still observed, and many a proposal of marriage was made on a porch swing. Older persons derived great pleasure from sitting on the porch, watching the world go by, or seeing the neighborhood children at play.

Page 1 of 3 | Next page