Saturday, August 08, 2020


In learning something about the history of American porches (front porches have a strong Afro-Caribbean history, BTW), I read a source document from a colonial New Yorker writing to a New Englander about a design custom that had come up from the south.  He used the word peazer and described it, saying it was such a wonderful addition to a living space that he couldn't imagine having a house without one now. It took quite a bit of reading before I figured out that he was spelling phonetically, as even educated people did in those days, and was writing about a piazza. The -er ending reminded me of my grandfather's second wife, my Gramma Helen Bates, an odd and not classically educated person from central Massachusetts, who always called the three-season porch the piazzer. I wondered at the time if it was some bizarre affectation of folk over to Leominster trying to sound elegant and Italian, or perhaps even picked up from Italian immigrants to her small city. I suddenly suspected it had been in use a lot longer.

The Shorter Oxford tells me exactly that, that piazza was an Italian market or square the word used in English by the late 16th C. It came to refer to a veranda by the early 18th, especially if covered, chiefly in the US. The word could easily have expanded in meaning from covered veranda to unheated porch. Now that I recall, the term was also used for the connecting porch from a house to a garage. I can't remember which of the families in my acquaintance used the term that way, but I think they were many. As a dialect form, piazza may have fallen out of use as a word for a veranda at all in New England, so that the single word describes diffferent features north and south.  It makes entire sense that verandas would have gotten going in the south much earlier, but by the time they reached New England the idea of enclosing them a bit would make sense.  Everyone adapts to local conditions.

The cats, all of them, lived on the piazzer, along with a piano she would bang on every day, thinking we were entertained.  She had been a clothing buyer for a better store (so she said) before her late marriage, and there were also stacks of old magazines with knitting patterns and other clothing directions.  In my mind, they all had pictures of kittens sitting in baskets with balls of yarn. They we so cunnin', she said.  It had an odd smell, probably camphor, mixed with cat something and magazine must.  Not terrible, just odd. I think little of this was in the minds of Italian architects in the Middle Ages.


Charles said...

Not Afro-Caribbean at all. Porches were fundamental to all southern and Appalachian housing and were strictly a domestic adaptation.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Deetz provides strong evidence that it came to the South from the early Caribbean planters. The front porch is not found in England at those early 17th C dates. South Carolina was largely settled by Caribbean planters, not directly from England. (Virginian and other Chesapeake dwellings do not have porches until much later.)
The planters had it in turn had it from African designs, as they had slaves building their houses, not imported labor from Europe. The shotgun house is also Ghanian. Appalachia was not settled until over a century later.

Christopher B said...

I'm not sure if it was mimicry but there were lots of front porches in Midwest architecture. Quite typical is 2 story main structure with a single story extension set at a right angle, the porch running along the front of the single story. Doors enter both the single story main room and the parlor in the two story section. Another reasonable common variation is a wide two story with a porch front and back, the porch entry into the parlor again and a side entrance for the kitchen. By now it's uncommon to find them in original condition. Most have been enclosed to expand living space in our centrally heated and cooled environments.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It seems to have spread quickly once it got started because it was originally an inexpensive way to increase living space. Screens did not exist, and glass was very expensive, so enclosed porches tend to come later. Also, houses were very small by our standards then. A whole family would live in a 16x16 room, and if they prospered, would add a second of the same size. There is a cultural push as well. When I was in Romania, even small houses in town would have an enclosed courtyard in back. No one sat in the front in order to be generally friendly to passers-by. People hunkered down in privacy. Fenced courtyards are more common throughout Europe, even now. This had started to change by 2000, as more women grew flowers in front and would be out there tending them and available for conversation.

Contrast this with the South and Midwest, where friendliness and openness to others is a strong value.

JMSmith said...

The first American houses that had what we think of as porches where those built in the Italianate style, the architectural fad of the 1840s. The Italianate was preceded by the Greek Revival, which sometimes had a portico, but very often didn't. And porticos were not used as porches. None of the folk styles that preceded the Greek Revival had porches, although some had "stoops." The Southern "dogtrot" house had a porch of sorts, but this was obviously an adaptation of the older English cottage to a hot climate. So the term piazza came in with the Italianate style of the 1840s, and as your relatives show, it hung on in many places. The American porch prospered for a hundred years, but began to dwindle with the bungalow style of the 1920s. Almost all houses built in postwar suburbs had returned to a "stoop," with their outdoor living space removed to a backyard patio or deck. Faux-porches made something of a comeback in upscale suburbs after 1980, but close observers will notice that the tasteful porch swings and chairs are very seldom used. To my mind, these faux-porches stand as a symbol of the neo-traditionalism of that period--status-seeking consumerism with an Americana theme.

We have an interesting tension here in Texas. Many Hispanics treat their front yards as a living space, and leave their front yards littered with chairs, coolers, tables, etc. all the time. Some Anglos do the same, but this clearly offends the majority of Anglos who view the front yard as a display space. I'll admit that I am in the second group, and that I live in a neighborhood that is sufficiently mixed so that I worry about one of these outdoor living rooms appearing on my street.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Deetz's description of a "peaza" sounds much like a covered veranda. Chapter 8 of Small Things. The quote is from 1771, John Singleton Copley corresponding with the builder of his house back in Boston

Should I not add Wings I shall add a peazer when I return, which is much practiced here (New York) and very beautiful and convenient.

He later describes it, as the builder has not heard of it.

You say you don't know what I mean by a Peaza. I will tell you than. it is exactly such a thing as the cover over the pump in your Yard, suppose no enclosure for poultry theri, and 3 or 4 Posts added to support the front of the Roof, a good floor at bottum, and from post to post a Chinese enclosure about three feet high, these posts are Scantlings of 6 by 4 inches Diameter, the Broad side to the front, with only a little moulding round the top in a neat plain manner, some have Collumns but very few, and the top is generally Plasterd, but I think if the top was sealed with neat plained Boards I should like it as well. these Peazas are so cool in Sumer and in Winter break off the storms so much that I think I should not be able to like an house without...

His footnote traces it to Fiske Kimball's Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and Early Republic 1922.

JMSmith said...

This passage is interesting. It suggests to me that the porch may have derived in part from what used to be known as a summer house or a pavilion. These were common features in the landscaped parks of elite estates in the 18th century. Along with the terrace, they reflect the growing appreciation of nature. Perhaps the porch was just a middle-class version of the summer house and terrace nailed onto the side of the house. But they really became standard in the journeyman plan books after 1840 or so--pretty well coinciding with the popularization of romanticism in America.

DOuglas2 said...

Commenting on a week-old post because I hadn't seen it yet; My wife found our current home especially attractive because of the deep wrap-around porch on the street facing sides -- it reminds her of the porches of the stilt-house in the remote part of SE Asia where she lived in young childhood.

In our case the tasteful chairs are often used, in these covid times often for all 3 meals in a day. Even on hot days it gets a breeze and is comfortable.