As discussed in an earlier story about the Pastime Park in McCook, the advent of home air-conditioners, after World War II, had a profound effect on the social customs in Nebraska. It even had a great effect on the architecture of family homes.
The houses on our street in Plainview, a small town in Northeast Nebraska, where I grew up in the ’30s, all looked pretty much the same. By today’s standards they would have to be considered modest. They were all of frame construction, built mostly in the years after World War I – the type generally referred to as “Pre-Depression Bungalow.” (During the ’30s the construction of any new home was a very rare occurrence.)
They were comfortable homes, and durable, with beautiful old elm trees, which provided abundant shade. Home air conditioners (other than humidity raising, water cooled “swamp coolers”) were unknown, so every house had a front porch, which in summer, served as a sort of outdoor living room. And this led to a great deal of social contact.
For instance: After the evening meal, in summer, families made a mass exit to the front porch, where there was shade and usually some breeze, making the evening bearable. Yards were not the lush green beauties, which are in vogue today. Lawn-care services were unknown – well not really unknown – I was the lawn-care service in our family, and that service consisted of mowing the grass, weekly, into June, and again in September. Everyone expected their yard to turn brown in July and August. Money was extremely tight, and watering the lawn was considered extravagant and a useless expense.
Sometimes my Dad would stand out in the yard and sprinkle the lawn by hand. However, 1 think he merely picked up the hose so that people would know he was at home. Pretty soon one of the neighbors would wander over and start to visit. Then Dad would turn off the water and the two would retreat to the screened-in front porch where they could visit in comfort. A little later the neighbor’s wife would join her husband. Then my Mother would make lemonade and very often they would set up the card table and an impromptu game of cards would follow.
There were always four chairs, or more, on the front porch – people fully expected neighbors to drop in and wanted to have places for them to sit. Families normally had but one radio in the home, a large console, in the living room. In order to follow their favorite programs they needed to open the front windows, both to hear the radio and to aid in cooling off the house, so that sleeping would be possible later on.
In that day, before TV, people had much less choice as to the radio programs they could hear, and everyone tended to listen to the same shows. The volume was turned up so that the sound wafted onto the porch, and hence to the street. On a Sunday night I could walk down our entire block, without a radio, and still listen to the Jack Benny program, coming from every house, and not miss a single line.
Alas, after things returned to normal, following World War II, five things occurred, which cut down on the social opportunities in a small town.
1. Air conditioning made homes comfortable year “round. (In 1950 Plainview bought a new diesel generator for the production of electricity. At that time it was confidently predicted in the Plainview News that the city’ s generating capacity was assured for years to come.
But within one year, increased consumption of power, largely from home air conditioners, outstripped generating capacities, and the city was forced to buy power on the open market, and they’ve been buying it that way ever since.)
2. New homes were built without front porches.
3. Garages with electronic door openers made it possible for people to put their car away without having to make contact with their neighbors.
4. Automatic sprinklers made it unnecessary for one to sprinkle his lawn by hand.
5. Most of all, television made its debut on the American scene, keeping people inside, in air-conditioned comfort.
Social contact was changed drastically – forever.
All this being said, the social attractions of a porch were sometimes carried to extremes.
At the University of Nebraska I lived in the Brown Palace Co-op, a most economical place to live. At that time the Brown Palace was on “S” St., just off the main campus. It was a large, old, and ugly house, but it had two front porches, a lower porch which stretch¢d entirely across the front of the house, and an upper porch, directly above. The main floor porch was open and was lined with lawn chairs. Since the house was midway between sorority row and the main campus, the porch was a popular vantage point to watch co-eds on their way to class.
At the Brown Palace we had a central living room, a central dining room, and study rooms, each of which was shared by four boys. We kept our clothes in the study rooms, and dressed there, but everyone slept in the upstairs porch. This was an unheated room, with windows on three sides. There were six double bunk beds in that one room, two guys to a bed, 24 in all. With the closeness of that many bodies in such a relatively small space, there was never any thought to closing the windows. We needed the breeze.
This was fine in the fall, but as the season turned to winter there were problems. We never seemed to have enough blankets (and at that time there were certainly no electric blankets), so to keep warm we put newspapers between the blankets. Whenever someone turned over (which with 24 guys was almost constantly) there was a very audible rustle of newspapers. Sometimes it was quite loud, almost drowning out the snores. But the insulating quality of the paper did seem to make sleeping on that porch bearable, even in the coldest weather. When there was a snowstorm the snow would blow through that porch till the bunks, and sleepers, were entirely covered with mounds of snow. Surely there must have been speed records set in the dash from that cold porch to our heated rooms in the morning.
Yes, even the favorable aspects of the sociability of porches can sometimes be overdone.