Saturday, September 01, 2007

The board becomes more puzzling...The wonder of old porches
Regarding yesterday's posts.

In examining information about colonial and Victorian lap desks, it seems that most were really called, "Lap Boxes" or "Letter Boxes". The lap desks usually had a compartment underneath that held all the writing supplies. People could take these with them when they traveled. Usually, the writing surface was sloped, and, often, it could be lifted up to provide access to the supply compartment.

The lap desk I asked about in my last post does not have a box attached to it. And, it appears to be larger in size to the antique lap desks shown on the Internet.

I also searched blocking boards, knitting boards, and tatting boards and didn't see anything quite like it.

One interesting tidbit about my great-grandmother's home management. Every Monday, the washing was done come rain or shine. That was pretty typical back then, especially for someone of her German heritage.

Like most Southern homes, my great-grandmother's home had an open porch on the front, for socializing. Most Southern homes had a utlity porch on the back, as well. The one on her house ran down the side, but it was hidden from the street by the length of the front wing. My great-grandmother often did or had tasks done on the back porch. So, on this utility porch, she had long clotheslines where items were hung to dry in damp weather. On sunny days, they were hung on lines in the yard. I imagine that on blowing rainy days, the clothes were hung somewhere inside the house.

I also suppose that in the sweltering heat of the Tennessee's Little Delta, in pre-air-conditioned days, a family couldn't have too many porches!

In old Southern homes, the front porch was usually the place where the family relaxed, entertained company or at least waved to friends as they walked by, rocked in a porch swing, or sat in rocking or wicker chairs. The utility porch was generally on the back. It was sometimes screened -- provided extra storage, as well as a place to perform heat-producing chores, such as ironing, in fresh, cooler air. That made it more comfortable for the person doing the chore, and it also prevented the heat from adding to the general heat of the kitchen and house. This was also a place where you could do tasks that required good ventilation, such as polishing shoes or painting furniture.

The antebellum houses tended to have a defined front porch, and any other porches -- be they side porches or back porches were separate. Many of the later Victorian houses often had a porch that wrapped a good way around the front and sides of the home, plus a back porch.
In many parts of the South, they had screened-in sleeping porches, as well. When the summer heat became unbearable, you could sleep on the cooler porch and be perfectly safe from mosquitos.

I grew up in a mid-twentieth century home that had a huge screened in porch, where we had wrought-iron patio furniture with comfortable cushions. By this time, the screened-in porch had become less of a utility thing, but more like an extra room of someone's house. We also had shades that could be let down to screen slanting sun rays, if needed. We often sat or ate out there. I love fresh air, and I have very fond memories of times our family spent on this porch.

It seems like these screened-in were replaced by decks for a while, but are coming back in. While decks are nice, I'm all for the revival of porches! I adore porches. Many of the homes my relatives lived in when I was young were older homes, and many of them had wonderful porch swings where you could relax and rock.

At this point, we have a deck. But, perhaps, we will be able to convert it to a screened in porch one day, as some of our neighbors have done.

The oldest houses in my family -- the antebellum country homes -- were built with the kitchen separate from the main house. This was to keep any possible kitchen fires away from the big house, in a contained space. That way, if there was an accident with the fire in the kitchen, the kitchen might burn down, but main house could be saved. Also, it kept the intense heat of those old kitchens with the huge fire-places out of the house. Usually, those kitchens were connected to the main house by a covered walkway.

By the time I came along, the outside kitchens had been torn down and replaced by modern inside kitchens. And, many a little room or closet had been converted to a "water closet", as well.
Of course, I was born well after the advent of central air-conditioning, which changed many things about the South. One of theses things was Southern architecture. In the old days, Southern homes were designed with many features that provided some natural cooling. (I suppose that houses in the northern U.S. had some of these features, too, but I know more about Southern architecture and can only speak for that.) Porches and long central halls that could be opened to act as breezeways were just two of the old-fashioned ways of beating the heat -- or, at least trying to.

Fewer homes are built with these features today. I think that the 50's through the early 90's reached the peak of architecture designed without regard to our local climate.

There's no doubt about it, air-conditioning has made our long, humid summers more tolerable. I have spent enough time in non-air-conditioned summer camps and dorm rooms to know that I love my air-conditioning! But, I wonder if we might save on energy costs if more modern homes were built with many of the features that past architects used to keep a house more naturally cool. I do think there has been a revival of interest in this, which has been spurred by environmental concerns. Why not have the best of both worlds?



Julieann said...

I loved reading about the south--I have a soft spot in my heart for southern living. Thank goodness for SCREENS though---When I would walk from the front door to the car, I would get bit up that quick.

As for a lap box, my Grandmother has something like that, but it feels like it is a big bean bag attached to board for her to do her crosswords.


Katie Gillet said...

My hometown of Wenonah, NJ, was once a resort town with a lot of summer residences. A number of the houses I most covet have upstairs sleeping porches. Alas, my parents' house is far too new.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Julieann and Katie,

Aren't porches (and screens) wonderful! Of course, that's easy to say while sitting in my air-conditioned house at the moment.

Katie, I'm not surprised that a resort town would have the sleeping porches. They would be most effective near water, where you would get a breeze. I'm sure those houses in your area are just beautiful!

Julieann, I had forgotten about those lap desks with the bean bag type thing underneath. Hmm, I wonder if this old board is something similar, but in the days before they did attach the bean bags. I wonder what the inches are for.


Katie said...

The funny part is that Wenonah was a resort because it *wasn't* near much water! No place for mosquitoes to breed! There's a couple of lakes beyond the town but they're nowhere near the old houses.

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