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A Brief Social History of 20th Century America, As Told By Porches

February 27th, 2013 Sears Homes 3 comments

When you cut a tree down, you can learn a lot about local history by examining its exposed trunk. How many rings does it have? How old is the tree? During which years did the area experience a drought?

By studying America’s early architecture, you can learn a lot about life in that time period. For instance, in the early 1900s, why did the Victorian Manse fall from favor so fast? Why did the diminutive bungalow gain ground so fast?

What ignited The Bungalow Craze?

The germ theory.

In the late 1800s, about one in five children died before their 18th birthday. Parents were desperate to do anything to protect their children’s health. When it was discovered that “germs” were the culprit and that sanitation was the cure, people couldn’t get out of those big houses fast enough. It’s a fascinating topic, and to learn more about this one slice of American architectural history, click here.

Porches also tell a story about the social fabric in early 20th Century America.

In the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, we loved our front porches, and by design, they were intended to “woo and welcome the weary wanderer.”

Men, women and children passed many happy hours on the oversized front porch, and it was an open invitation for folks to drop by a “set a spell” (as we say in the south).

In pre-air conditioning days, the front porch also provided a welcome respite from the summer heat.

Last but not least, there were the salutary effects of fresh air. Primitive heating systems (usually fired by coal) had no filtration, and were probably partly to blame for the fact that so many children suffered from pulmonary diseases.

And there was a body of belief that fresh air was a cure for so many diseases. Being “cooped up” in an unevenly heated, often drafty old house was a recipe for disease, according to the prevailing thought of the day. In the early 1900s, a daily dose of fresh air was akin to today’s fascination with vitamins and herbal remedies.  (In the 1920s, “sleeping porches” became the rage for this very reason.)

And we were a society of walkers. Most communities were full of walkers, on their daily rounds. Without modern refrigeration, excursions to the butcher, the grocer, the baker and the general store were daily events.

And if you passed by The Thornton Home on Thornrose Avenue and saw Rose sitting in her wicker swing on the front porch, it was de rigueur to walk up to (but not on) the front steps and say hello. If Rosemary was in a fittin’ mood, she’d invite you to “set down for a bit and rest a spell.”

Front porches were a significant piece of our social construct in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

When houses got smaller, so did the front porch. By the 1910s, they were significantly downsized. And by 1920, a funny thing happened on the way to the wicker swing. The porch got moved to the side of the house. We still wanted to be part of the community, but we also wanted our privacy, and some alone time with our loved ones.

And in the 1950s, the porch moved again - to the back of the house. After making the commute back home from the foundry or the mill or the Skippy Peanut Butter Plant, we wanted to relax and put our feet up and enjoy our own little oasis in the back yard, away from the madding world. If someone wanted to drop by, they’d darn well better call first, and if they just showed up at the door, we could ignore them, and remain safely ensconced (and hidden) on the back of the house.

As I said, it’s a fascinating thumbnail sketch of American society.

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Aunties home

My great Aunt (Addie Hoyt) lived in this classic Victorian home, which was extensively remodeled (completely rebuilt) in 1895. Note the massive front porch, replete with three hammocks hanging from the porch posts. This photo as taken about 1899 or 1900.

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close up

Here's a close-up of those three hammocks. Very inviting!

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auntie poker

Front porches were very inviting - by design - and also became kind of an "outdoor den" and social center. Here is Addie (facing the camera) playing poker with an unidentified woman friend on the front porch of her home. She captioned this photo, "We have a real kitty for the kitty!"

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contemporary shows off porch

A contemporary view of Addie's home (2012). This photo really shows off those amazing porches. The second floor porches facing the street were sometimes known as "Parade Porches." This house has two second-floor porches. BTW, this house is now a famous Wisconsin landmark, and it's also a B&B. It's known as the Fargo Mansion Inn. Look below for a link to the site.

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1920sw

In 1957, my parents moved into this house at 515 Nansemond Street (Waterview) in Portsmouth, Virginia. It was built in 1924, and you can see the open porch is now on the side of the house. By the early 1920s, porches had migrated to the side, giving the homeowner a little privacy.

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side porch

My parents loved this house, and they captured a picture that really showcases the idea of the "private oasis" and the side porch. This house was in the suburbs (of the time), and not many people were likely to be walking down the street (compared to downtown districts), and yet we still wanted a bit of privacy from the world. Between the long awnings and the tall shrubs, it's hard to see much of anything on that porch, and that was probably by design.

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house house

Close-up of the side porch. In the late1950s, my mother stepped out to her beloved side porch one summer evening and saw a bat hanging upside down in the corner. The next week, a contractor was at the house, screening in Mother's porch. She dearly loved that screened-in porch and spent many happy hours there, looking out at the side yard.

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front porch shelter rain

By 1925, front porches were a place to stand for a moment, sheltered from the elements, while you dug out your house keys. Or in this case, pose for an Easter photo (1957). My brother Tommy stands on the left, with Rickey on the right.

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house house

By the 1950s, porches had migrated to the back of the house. After a hard day at the office, we wanted our privacy and we didn't want to share our quiet time with strollers meandering down the street. There were new social rules. Visitors were by invitation only, and if someone decided to drop by (without calling ahead), we could hide safely in the back of the house. This house (my house) was built in 1962. The porch on the back is invisible from neighbors on either side. When built, this was a screened-in porch with a cement floor. In 1979, the windows were installed, and the 12x14' room became a sunporch. We purchased the home in 2012, and did a few more improvements to the room (some repairs and the installation wall-to-wall carpet). This is now the place where we spend 95% of our time.

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house house

Even before proper porches, people tended to congregate in the front of the "old home place." This is a soddie ("the first house") in Dighton, Kansas. It was made of sod - literally.

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To learn more about Addie, click here.

To stay at Addie’s home, click here.

To read more about Rose’s much-loved mid-century brick ranch, click here.

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Homer and His Daughters

July 16th, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

In the 1880 Federal Census, my great, great grandfather (Homer Hoyt) is listed as “Homah Hoyt.” Homer was from Vermont (and living in Lake Mills, WI at the time) and I can just hear the long-time New Englander telling the census taker, “Ah said, mah name is Homah.”

Guess they haven’t had “R’s” in New England in a long, long time.

Homer Hoyt at age 17 (late 1850s or early 1860s)

Homer Hoyt at age 17 (about 1858). Homer was front Vermont, but by 1870, Homer and his wife (Julia) were living in the Lake Mills (Wisconsin) area.

Addie (left) and Anna Hoyt in 1887. Addie would have been 15 years old, and Anna would have been 21.

Addie (left) and Anna Hoyt in 1887. Addie would have been 15 years old, and Anna would have been 21.

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Homer's two daughters were Anna Hoyt Whitmore (left) and Addie Hoyt Fargo (right). Anna was 44 in this photo. Addie (right) was 24. The photo on the left was taken in 1910, and the photo on the right was 1896. Addie remained in Lake Mills until her death in 1891, and Anna Hoyt married Wilbur Whitmore and moved to Denver.

To read about his children, Anna and Addie, click here.

To learn about Sears Homes, click here.

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Growing Up in Waterview (Portsmouth)

June 27th, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

In 1953, my father took a job at Skippy Peanut Butter in downtown Portsmouth, necessitating a move from their home (and family)in California to Virginia. They rented homes in Park Manor and then in Shea Terrace, and then they decided it was time to buy a home of their own. In April 1957, they paid $17,500 for a house in Waterview, at 515 Nansemond Street. They used my mother’s veteran’s benefits to get a 15-year VA mortgage on the house.

Mom didn’t like the kitchen in the new house. The only cabinet space was a six-foot wide enameled metal base cabinet with a cast-iron double sink in the center. There was a drawer to the left and right, and four doors under the sink. It was pretty primitive. My mother took $500 of her own money and hired a carpenter to build a room full of knotty pine cabinets with wrought iron hardware. Yellowish/greenish Formica with a non-descript squiggly pattern (trimmed with a stainless steel edging) was the finishing touch. She also bought a fancy new GE electric stove with push-buttons on the console. The result was transformative, and after the work was all done, she came to love her “new” kitchen.

Mom spent a lot of time sitting on her screened-in porch, looking out at the spacious side yard. The sturdy canvas awnings with their scalloped edges together with the thick canopy of the tall pines provided a bit of relief on those hot summer days.

Whether Mom was relaxing on the porch or walking around the house, she’d often tell me, “I’m so grateful to live in this big beautiful house. Just so grateful.”

Hearing such things from a parent can have a deep and lasting impact on a child. My mother taught me how to love and appreciate old houses, and yet, it was not one of those “I’m teaching my child an important lesson here” moments. It was an abundance of love and gratitude that overflowed from her heart and right into mine. Her comments touched me deeply. In fact, I’d say it’s probably the main reason that I became an architectural historian.

I love old houses. I love everything about them. I love thinking about them and writing about them.

I’m so blessed to have a career where I can spend my days thinking about and writing about old houses.

And I’ve enjoyed having an old house of my own. It’s been a fun ride. And now it’s time to move on.

Enjoy the old photos!  :)

Edited in May 2017: My “Happy Ever After” with Wayne - my husband - was destroyed in April 2016.

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Eddie licks the beaters (always a fun thing to do) while standing in front of the original kitchen cabinet. When the house was built in 1925, this base cabinet, together with a small matching wall cabinet (to the right) were the only cabinets in the entire kitchen.

Eddie and my father in the kitchen.

Eddie and my father in the kitchen. You can see a bit of this "remodeled kitchen" in the background.

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My mother looking happy in her beloved home. Tommy Fuller, Jr. stands behind Tom Fuller Sr (seated), and Rickey is setting fire to something on the table. Both parents have a hand on Eddie to keep him still long enough for the shutter to click.

The two oldest boys got shiny new bikes in Summer 1959, and Eddie (the youngest boy) got a new baby sister. Im pretty sure he would have preferred a red bike.

The two oldest boys got shiny new bikes in Summer 1959, and Eddie (the youngest boy) got a new baby sister. I'm pretty sure he would have preferred a red bike. The look on his face says it all. Great shot of our living room and foyer - and a stunned little brother.

Mom

Mom holds me up and away from the male land sharks.

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Good picture of the fan light over the front door. Dad and I look very worried.

Ed

Eddie tries desperately to make the noise stop. I'm not sure, but I think he's offering me a corn dog. Judging by the look on my face, I'm giving the offer some serious consideration.

Eddie goes to sleep under the watchful eye of Lil Bo Peep and Bugs Bunny. I saw this same Lil Bo Peep applique in an episode of I Love Lucy, and it was over Little Rickeys crib. I guess Lil Bo Peep was a big item for boys in the mid-1950s.

Eddie goes to sleep under the watchful eye of Lil' Bo Peep and Bugs Bunny. I saw this same Lil' Bo Peep applique in an episode of "I Love Lucy," and it was over "Little Rickey's" crib. I guess Lil' Bo Peep was a big item for boys in the mid-1950s.

Were probably in that 45-minute period, waiting for the TV to warm up.

We're probably in that boring 45-minute period, where we'd sit around and wait for the TV to warm up.

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Rickey, Eddie and Tommy, about 1960.

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Neighborhood kids gather for Rickey's 9th birthday party. That's me in the lower right, hoping that someone with more advanced neuro-muscular skills will turn my teddy bear right-side up.

aw

The tall trees and canvas awnings worked together to keep the worst of the summer heat off Mom's favorite "room" - the sunporch.

picture

Our house on Nansemond in 1973, following a big snowstorm. Photo was taken by Gerald B. Anderson and may not be used or reproduced without permission.

My family home in Waterview (Portsmouth) as seen in April 1956, when we moved in.

My family home in Waterview (Portsmouth) as seen in April 1957, when we moved in.

Pretty in pink

Here's our house in Norfolk - a 1925 Colonial Revival pretty in pink.

Our home as it appeared in 1948.

Our home as it appeared in 1948.

To learn more about Gosnold Avenue, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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Rediscovering Innocence

October 11th, 2010 Sears Homes No comments

On June 10, 2011, my 91-year-old father passed on. Almost to the day - one year prior - we’d moved him into an assisted living facility. This blog (below) was written soon after that event.

In June 2010, my 91-year-old father moved into assisted living. It’s been a flurry of activity, closing up his house, moving him to a new place, getting things settled, and dealing with the 101 details of his life. As his POA, the details seem to be endless.

Making all this ever more difficult is the fact that my father made many poor choices in life, such as walking out on my mother and me in 1974. I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, Forgiving our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves was one of the best books I ever read. I highly recommend it.

In 2001, after my father’s second wife died, my father reentered my life bit by bit. He was 82 years old.

Now he’s 91, and old and frail and needs a lot of help on a lot of fronts. Sometimes, despite my daily prayers and best efforts and dogged determination, there are days when I still feel angry with him.

When we were cleaning out his house, we found a baby book - his baby book - from 1919.  I’d expected to find a few loose photos stuck within its brittled pages. Instead, I found an incredibly detailed record of a little boy’s life from June  1919 to sometime in 1926.  The “baby book” was filled with vintage photos and detailed information and stories and even a locket of baby’s hair, safely ensconced in a tiny envelope with a delicate blue ribbon.

Looking at the handwritten notes, I saw my father in a new light. More than 90 years ago, he was someone’s beloved baby boy. This cute little baby, smiling back at me from the faded-pages of an antique book, warmed my heart and softened the wrath I’d felt.

I’ve heard it said that the kindest thing we can do for our heavenly Father is to be kind to his children. It occurs to me that - in addition to the divine command - perhaps the kindest thing I can do for my paternal grandparents is to be kind to their youngest son, their beloved little boy, Thomas.

Baby Boys in 1919

My father was a twin, born ten minutes after his brother "Junior." Here's their picture from Fall 1919. The caption (written by my grandmother) said, "In their buggy, Junior always reaches out to hold Thomas' little hand."

babies

"Junior" and Thomas at the park. Apparently, Thomas doesn't like the fact that Junior (left) has a toy and Thomas does not. Thomas is so rattled, he's on the verge of falling over.

babies

Thomas and Junior (front and rear) with their maternal grandparents, the Whitmores.

moew babies

Edward Atkinson Fuller Junior (left) and Thomas Hoyt Fuller (right)

more and more

A wicker basket built for two!

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Awesome necklace

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Junior (Ed) on left, Mom (Florence Whitmore Fuller) and Thomas.

Thomas with his horsie

Thomas with his horsie

My father in the early 1950s with two of his four children.

My father in the early 1950s with two of his four children.