American landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing seized the English idea of blending the house with nature and, thus, presented to the American public – the front porch.
Victorian homes, Tudor homes, and the prairie style bungalow all have those marvelous porches that sometimes encircle the whole house. Nature surrounds the dwelling! And to accommodate all those who wish to enjoy the outdoor life while staying at home, there is the porch swing.
Now, before we delve deeper into those porches and the swings that dominated the homes that were built in America during the late 1800s and early 1900s, we must first look at those Texas pioneers who were really ahead of the times. They built porches onto their houses much before the Queen Victorian and the Tudor style homes came to be.
The pioneers built what was called “dog trot” houses. The porches on these houses were constructed right in the middle, between the living rooms and the bedrooms, so that the breeze along with the dog could swish through the houses bringing cool air to both the living and the sleeping quarters.
In every room there were exposures in all four directions. These early pioneers were not really into experiencing nature in a porch swing. Their porches were built so that they could survive nature – the intense Texas heat!
Nevertheless, the front porches on the Victorian, Tudor style and prairie bungalow homes brought nature to those residents who were “tired” of being inside – or maybe they were just tired!
Porch swing sitters have always sought relaxation, and, yes, they did find it! Swinging to and fro definitely has a soothing effect on the human spirit. An Indian mama often hung her bagged papoose on a tree while she was busy with the chores in and about the teepee. The kid never cried! That kid was too content “swinging.”
The settlers could see that a swinging child was a happy child, and thus, they followed the Indian custom.
We all know that babies love to be rocked – but so do adults! Rocking and swinging can bring a “blanket of contentment” and one can surely find this contentment in a porch swing!
I grew up in East Dallas in the very house in which I now live. And I have to admit that I – like most residents – have “glassed in” the front porch. However, as a kid I “lived” on this very spot that is now heated and air conditioned.
First, there were the Monopoly games – or should I say – THE Monopoly game. It was never-ending. Charles Roffino, who lived the third door down (east side), and I played the same game for years on a card table that stood untouchable on the porch. Whenever one of us during the game went broke, we’d borrow money from the bank to keep the game going.
My mother sat on the porch in the swing. What was she doing? What else? She was shelling peas! That was what housewives did on porches during the day – they would swing, watch the kids and shell peas.
Now, in the evening, there was an entirely different scenario. Entertainment was the consequence. The lady who resided the third house down from us (west side) was a maiden lady who lived with her mother. These were depression days and folks didn’t have a lot of money, so in order to supplement an income, one would often take in “roomers.” A “roomer” was really destitute. He could only afford to rent a room – thus the name – “roomer!”
Now, this mother and “old maid” daughter had a roomer who just happened to be one of the violinists with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. His salary was so low, he could only rent a room, and sometimes, he was not able to pay the rent for this tiny cell. So, he would go out on the front porch and play his violin. We neighbors would hear the mellow tones coming from his instrument and rush to grab a seat on the porch swing to hear the concert! The old maid and her mother were so happy to have the company on their porch, they just let the violinist live “free!” He brought in a crowd, and that crowd was much more appreciated than money! We sat in the porch swing and “dug” the melodic renditions. What more could anyone want? Certainly not television – an unheard-of phenomenon.
Before my mother and father lived in the Greenland Hills area, they had a small prairie bungalow on McMillan Street. This was in the 1920s, when they could afford the house, but not a new invention called – radio! It was a lovely evening, September 22, 1927, and the big happening of the moment was the boxing match between world heavyweight champ Gene Tunney, and the contender, Jack Dempsey. The event was being held at Soldier Field, Chicago, but that “newfangled” thing called a radio was going to broadcast the event to the nation.
As I said, my mother and father couldn’t afford a radio, so they were invited to their neighbor’s porch swing. The radio was placed in the window so we could all hear this earth-shaking event!
Mother and daddy were seated on the swing, neighbors were gathered and sitting on chairs brought out to the porch, and the McMillan neighborhood with the rest of the nation heard the fight. Jack Dempsey in the seventh round knocked out Gene Tunney, but Jack refused to go to a neutral corner. (This was a new rule – a fighter must go to the neutral corner after he has knocked down his opponent.)
Paul Gallico of the New York Daily wrote that Tunney “was out. No question about it.” But 15 seconds elapsed before the referee reached the count of nine, and Tunney rose from the “long count” and he went on to win the decision.
What a fight! And my mother and daddy heard it all from a porch swing!
Now, most of these porch swings were made of wicker – a perfect material that gave the feeling of being light and airy. However, some swings were made of wood – just like the rockers that were often there with the swing on the front porch.
Nevertheless, after World War II there came what I call the “tacky” time of the front porch – metal chairs! They were everywhere. On the top of the backs of these chairs there were three curved arcs, and metal rods made the legs and arms. They came in four primary colors – red, blue, green and yellow, and they were very uncomfortable. And, oh yes, they cost $1 at the old Skillerns Drug Store.
The nation had done without metal so long, when those chairs came out in 1945, everyone rushed down to buy them – usually four, one of each color – red, blue, green and yellow. But, the metal in those chairs was so stiff, they never bounced like they were supposed to do. That’s why they were so uncomfortable. One sat down and hoped to bounce – but couldn’t! This was when everyone rushed to grab a seat on the swing!
Now, today, we’re even in a “tackier” time. We’re in the time of plastic chairs – you know – the ones we stack. They’re everywhere. I think that when one stacks them, the chairs mate and multiply. That’s why there are so many of them!
When I was in the Sudan Desert, Africa, I saw Arabs and Egyptians sitting in those chairs. “There’s not a Wal-Mart within miles of this place. Where did you get the chairs?” I asked. They didn’t know! I know these people looked uncomfortable – needed to swing!
We all need to swing! But, alas, air conditioning and the TV have won out in our lives. More than 90 percent of the population has a TV. Only 10 percent of the population have a porch swing! Tragic!