Lowcountry Life: Southern porches serve many purposes
By Jayne Violette | There is perhaps nothing more peaceful than lighting a few citronella candles, listening to the evening symphony of crickets, frogs and cicadas, and watching the stars come out at night from right outside the door: on your porch.
Beaufortonians do love our porches. They’re extensions not only of our homes, but of our personalities. We relax on them. We throw parties on them. We talk, rock, laugh, and reminisce on them. We sometimes even sleep and wake up on them. Our porches are large and lavish, small and secluded, quaint and quirky, and always, always inviting.
Porches in the south, however, have been more than architectural bonus rooms. Sometimes referred to as a “veranda” or a “piazza”, the porch of a southern home had, historically-speaking, both social and pragmatic purpose.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, a porch was thought to be a transition area between private and public space, as a kind of outdoor parlor where neighbors and even strangers could congregate without entrance to the home itself. Also, before the luxury of modern air-conditioning, porches, like those seen within the Historic District of Beaufort, were built to provide respite from the sweltering summer temperatures, enticing residents to fling open their windows and doors to catch the refreshing sea breezes from their balconies. In the early 20th century, spending time on one’s porch was considered to be a healthy activity, a way to eliminate germs and reduce risk of disease.
Also, you may see a porch in the historic district with a blue ceiling. That’s actually a local thing and the color is called ‘Haint Blue”. “Haint” is the Gullah pronunciation for the word “haunt,” or spirit. It is said in local folklore that frustrated spirits would find a dwelling to haunt as long as they don’t have to cross over water. Tricked by the pale blue ceilings, angry spirits would think it is water avoid the house. This method of driving evil away was told and retold by the Africans from Angola when they were brought here as slaves to the sea islands in the 1700’s.
Of course, you are outside so there also was – and still is — the issue of mosquitoes and other pesky biting insects for out-in-the-open porch-dwellers, although we now have many means for protection. Allan Douglas, of Grit magazine, writes that “‘wove wire for window screens’ was referenced in the American Farmer” as early as 1823, although it was not until the 1880’s that wire-mesh screening became a trend, “the most humane contribution to the 19th century,” according to social historian Russell Lynes. Most southern porches today feature large overhead ceiling fans not only for enhanced cooling, but also to shoo away insects. Every porch, screened in or not, must also include a well-hidden can or two of bug spray. Behind any flower pot will do.
Functional, social, and entomological utilitarianism aside, I took a drive around Beaufort one sultry evening and discovered as many different porches as there are personalities in our fair city. Most are decorated in the classic southern style, complete with rocking chairs, wicker furnishings, lush ferns and flowering hanging baskets, and the aforementioned quintessential “haint blue” painted ceilings to ward away evil spirits.
Still other porches are very small, like mine here at our 1944 cottage we call “The Love Shack”. There is room for only two or three, but the glowing bluetooth speaker ball is rockin’ out the B52s most evenings and the string lights cast a warm welcome to all who stop by.
And then there are the massive double and wrap-around porches, as seen on these gorgeous historic Beaufort homes on Bay Street and in the Old Point neighborhood downtown.
I do declare: these verandas are simply stunning.
Perhaps my favorite porches of all, however, are those designed to welcome friends and neighbors to come sit a spell and just talk.
Again, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, for “when the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at and see, it was nice. The fact that the thought pictures were always crayon enlargements of life made it even nicer to listen to”…with a tall glass of ice-cold sweet tea, of course.