A revival of porch culture?
By Christopher B. Daly
Now that good weather has finally reached New England (where I live), folks are making more use of their front porches. When I take walks around my neighborhood outside Boston, I see far more neighbors than I would in a normal June.
We wave and check on each other. Sometimes, we trade updates on how our kids are doing. We inquire about how our elderly neighbors are doing. We dawdle and chat and then mosey along.
At the same time, my wife and I have been getting full value out of our own front porch — not just as a dropoff point for mail and packages, but also for visiting and socializing. We have hosted neighbors for drinks and snacks (all BYO). We set up the furniture 6 feet apart and speak up a bit, and it works.
These new practices, recently noticed in a trend story in The New York Times, are a result of the novel coronavirus, but they are not actually novel at all. What we are seeing is a revival of time-honored practices from all over.
Years ago, I helped write a book about the coming of industrialization to the U.S. South at the very end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th. Turns out, porch visiting was part of the working-class culture.The book, first published in 1987, is titled Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Mill World. Drawing on oral histories, the book explores what industrialization felt like from the workers’ point of view.
Set mainly in the company towns of the Piedmont area of the Carolinas (as well as parts of Virginia and Georgia), this new way of life was built on the traditions of rural life that Southerners had known for generations. One feature of social life was strolling and stopping for “porch visits.”
Here’s an excerpt from Like a Family:
In the early 20th century, the first generation of workers in the American South moved in large numbers from family farms to the new industrial “company towns” being developed by textile companies like Burlington and Thomasville and Durham. In the process, they were moving, somewhat warily, from a rural way of life to a new life in town. Part of the new way of life involved having neighbors nearby. In the textile towns, workers — especially women — developed a “porch culture.” Many women did chores on the front porches of their new company housing, and they greeted and chatted with neighbors passing by. In this way, workers developed and strengthened friendships and a degree of worker solidarity.
“Cooperation grew out of the close personal relationships women created and maintained through a porch culture of visiting and gossip. The proximity of mill houses made it easy for women to get together. Frances Latta’s mother developed a daily ritual of social calls with other women who had left work to stay home with their children. “As soon as my mother finished [lunch], the ladies next door and around would come and sit on the porch. Every afternoon they visited one another. And they sat there and talked until five o’clock. Then they would go in, prepare [supper], serve it, wash their dishes, and be back on the porch again.” By contrast, women who had to work did most of their visiting at night. Edna Hargett and her friends in East Charlotte “always went to see every new baby. And if we got a new recipe or made a cake or something and it was good, we’d divide it with the others. We’d go and stay awhile with them, and all of us understood we couldn’t stay long because we had to get up for work and all.”
As in the country, Sunday remained the most important visiting day. . .. Women used these visits to keep up with events in the village. Gossip was the currency of community life, and through it women learned of others’ needs. As Don Faucette explained, “If one of the neighbors was sick, didn’t nobody have to go tell the neighbors you’re sick and need help or anything. Somehow or another they just sensed if and they’d go in. They’d all come in and pitch in to it.” Through talk, women “looked after one another” and regulated the flow of goods and services in the mill community.
What we are finding now, in the time of this dreadful pandemic, is that it really does help to get out onto the porch and into the streets — and to “look after one another.”