The Decline of the American Front Porch

"Mama used to roll her hair, back before the central air. We'd sit outside and watch the stars at night. She'd tell me to make a wish, and I'd wish we both could fly. Don't think she's seen the sky, since we got the satelite dish"--James McMurtry, Levelland

In the period immediately before and after World War II, the American front porch became a relic of the past, an architectural feature and cultural symbol no longer important to Americans. The technological and social forces that iniated this change will be explored in this section.

The primary technological change that spurred this developing abandonment of the front porch was the proliferation of the American automobile. The growing numbers of automobiles in America, its expansional use by different classes, and its growing use as a means of transporation flooded the American streets and roadways with cars. As a result, "the front porch was no longer an idyllic setting where one could relax and commune with nature," for the "exhaust fumes and the noise of a steady stream of cars and trucks had rendered it inhospitable and unhealthy"(Kahn 5). The automobile further created a new enclave and setting of towns and cities: suburbia. Automobiles allowed for Americans to move further distances from their workplace to build homes on less expensive property. The "automobile-dependent suburbs"(Kahn 5) did not feature front porches, due to the omnipresence of the automobile. Thus, as technology had helped to develop the front porch, by the mid twentieth century it was leading to its decline.

The new technological development of air conditioning further aided in the decline of the front porch. Providing a cool environment indoors, the front porch was no longer needed as a cool shaded area during the day or as a place to enjoy the cool night air. Families remained indoors comfortably, and a primary use of the front porch was no longer needed. Air conditioning, in a sense, also contributed to another technological development which would affect the front porch: the television. The television, which could exist only inside, provided endless hours of entertainment indoors. As a result, family life shifted from the porch to a family room or t.v. room, where families could watch the evening news, sporting events, or the early sitcoms, all while enjoying the newly invented "t.v. dinner." No longer would families relax outside on the front porch.

It has been heretofore suggested that a change in cultural ideals further aided in the decline of the front porch. Many of these cultural changes were the result of the technological changes outlined in this section. Certainly, Americans declining ideal with nature was a result of new technological developments such as the automobile. Yet, culture had changed on its own as well, aside from technological developments, further contributing to the decline of the front porch. The American ideal for community certainly had declined during this period. The specific reasons for such change must be left to the anthropologists or sociologists, yet America had become overtly more individualistic and less community oriented. This change helped to eliminate porches, and the elimination of porches further accelerated this trend. At the same time, the traditional American importance given to the family had declined. Familial structure and relations had changed, lending to less family interaction and family time. While this connection to the decline of the front porch is a stretch, it certainly may have played a role.

By the 1960's, the front porch had disappeared in the new architectural forms and houses sweeping the country. Technological and cultural forces had pushed porches to the back or side yard, or had eliminated them altogether. American society had changed, and with this change the front porch no longer stood as an American cultural symbol. Few Americans noticed this change, and the front porch disappeared into the realm of American memory. Not until the late 1980's and 1990's would the front porch be missed. The recurrence of the American front porch will be briefly discussed in the next section.