When I show historic homes, I sometimes have to point out that there is no way to access the backyard except through the kitchen. This is especially true for homes built prior to the 1930s, but even later homes sometimes have underwhelming access to the back. Buyers are frequently surprised that the backyard of the house seems like an afterthought with nothing more functional than an uncovered stoop off the kitchen or laundry room. The backyard was not a gathering place for the family during the early part of the 20th Century. Instead it contained practical amenities such as a kitchen garden, maybe some chickens, a clothes line and often an outhouse.
By stark contrast, the front of these homes featured broad, deep porches, sometimes wrapped around multiple sides of the home with doors leading out from several rooms. The front porch is a uniquely American phenomena that began in the mid-1800s as covered front stoops expanded to create an out door extension of the home where the whole family could gather. They offered families a way to escape the stuffiness of their homes and catch the evening breezes, talk, play games, sing, and visit with neighbors strolling by.
So what changed? What made the porch disappear in an apparent about face in favor of the backyard? First, the development of air conditioning made interiors much more livable. Second, as the middle class expanded, families could afford radios and (later) TVs, and began to spend more time indoors watching their favorite shows.
Finally, the popularity of the automobile also changed the way we lived — the added noise and pollution of cars on the streets drove people off their porches, and cars made families more mobile — increasing their entertainment options. As a result, porches became passe and people began to spend more time in their back yards. Families that could afford to installed pools and BBQ grills and our backyard culture began in earnest. One source from the 50s stated that the best improvement you could make to your home is to remove the old porch and install a “sleek, modern stoop.”
Everything comes back into style at some point, right? Now the appeal of front porches is growing again and that is one of the reasons buyers want to live in historic neighborhoods. The desire for connection and the simple joy of sitting on the porch in the evening is one of the things we cherish about these homes.