Porches are as much a part of an all-American summer as barbecues, flip-flops and swimming. A lot happens on a porch: lovers spoon, a dog naps in the sun, iced tea and lemonade taste better, and reading a book just seems perfect on a warm summer day. A porch is a space where everyone is welcome and hospitality abides.
The front porch is as old as history but in America front porches appeared in Colonial times when getting out of the house in the stifling summer heat was not only a chance to socialize but a necessity to drop the body temperature a few degrees. Porches come in all shapes and sizes from long horizontal spaces, to wrap around Victorian porches, to just enough space to sneak a couple of chairs.
Over the centuries, porches have become the heart of the house in summer with neighbors competing for the snazziest porch furniture, flowers, rugs, and artwork. So important is the porch to homeowners that the trend to make the porch a “three season” affair has been in vogue since the Fifties. But, beware: the modern raised ranch and post-WWII utilitarian construction was nearly the end of this cherished American architectural tradition. What replaces it? The deck. An open-air wood creation of slats and railings elevated above the ground and sequestered behind the house where privacy rules. Despite attempts to glorify deck construction, decks lack the welcoming charm of the all-American front porch.
If you’ve spent anytime porch sitting you might have noticed that porch ceilings are sometimes painted blue. If you thought it was to give the feeling you were looking up at the summer sky, you might be wrong. Blue porch ceilings are a Southern tradition, and one originating in South Carolina, where fear of restless spirits, haints, impelled homeowners to paint their porch ceilings, and often their window frames, blue to ward off evil spirits from entering the house and stealing family members away.
In New England you’re likely to see blue ceilings but what’s underfoot comes in two flavors: battleship grey and stained wood. There was a rumor going around a few decades ago that floors were painted grey to resemble the decks of whaling ships or the decks of battleships during WWII. The truth is grey hides dirt better than any other color underfoot. Nowadays folks have traded wide plank floors for the likes of concrete and tiling in newer construction.
Decorating a porch is big business and Pinterest and Houzz have page after page of ideas ranging from the rustic to high-end urban to DIY to “let’s pay a designer to do it for us.” If you’re of the “a coupla fold up chairs and a cooler” school of decorating your going to be ridden over by the color- coordinated crowd that worries their front porch won’t have enough curb appeal. There’s a lot of worrying that goes on with porch decorating. For something that’s supposed to evoke a slower life and banishing stress for a few hours, the angst that goes with creating a picture perfect setting can get to be expensive.
If you gravitate to old houses, you can be pretty sure you’re going to get a porch with that homestead. In rural America the Vernacular Greek Revival farmhouse followed the Greek Revival style of the mid-nineteenth century but added simple touches: side porches, smaller pediments and side additions. But the porch remains in nearly every farmhouse you drive passed or in every faux farmhouse in every development in America.
When I was a kid we had a Victorian porch in a neighborhood of Victorian houses with porches. Every porch was occupied at some point of the day or night no matter the weather. If you came home late, you could bet someone would be standing on the porch waiting for an explanation. If someone was sick, neighbors would gather on the porch with best wishes and covered dishes. You stepped out on your porch on a Sunday morning and stepped off to church or to breakfast. The porch was part of the family.
Across America there’s a no dues, no rules, no regulations, no contracts, no scheduled meetings, no agenda loose knit network of porch sitters that call themselves the Professional Porch Sitters Union. The motto: “Sit down a spell. That can wait.” The PPSU claims member locals in fifty states. The only thing you really need to join is a porch and a few chairs or a desire to sit a spell and take a load off your body and mind.
As a nation we don’t seem to agree on much anymore, except maybe that we like to sit on a porch and forget there is anything but a book, a cold drink, the warm sun and maybe a breeze. Maybe there’s a little subdued conversation but the porch is a place to shed your stress, forget politics and religion, trade a few stories, share a laugh, and watch the weather go by in a world that gets crazier by the day.
How about a Capital Region chapter of the Professional Porch Sitters Union? All we have to do is give ourselves a Local number. How about Local 518? We might even organize a few spontaneous porch sitting events. According to the union’s founder, Claude Stephens over in Louisville, KY, PPSU Local 1339, some suggested topics to get the conversational ball rolling are: “You think we’re going to get any rain?” Does it take more energy to argue over who will get more lemonade than it does to just get up and get it?” and “Sure is hot.” I can live with that kind of conversation on a sweltering summer day. How about you?
Photo credit: Professional Porch Sitters Union of America, PPSU Local 7