The American Front Porch is an ingenious architectural solution to the conundrum of how to entertain visitors without letting them into the house.
The tradition of the American front porch dates back to the late 1700s. It was a key feature of the humble Southern States ‘shotgun house’, a design which goes back yet further to West Africa. It was introduced by slaves building their own wooden shacks in the traditional Yoruba layout: one room wide, two rooms deep and with a front porch.
After the abolition of slavery, African Americans continued to build shotgun houses, and the style caught on with poor white Southerners too. The front porch was a perfect compromise between their two cultures. It allowed for an open, African way of life, but with a closable front door it also allowed for the more reserved customs of Europe.
One theory of the origin of the term ‘shotgun house’ is that you could fire a shotgun clean though it without hitting anything.
The shotgun house was an African-European cultural crossover. Elvis Presley was born in one and pioneered the musical equivalent.
In the mid 1800s, ‘porch culture’ spread to the whole of the rest of the United States thanks to two men: landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing and architect Andrew Jackson Davis (whose identical first names were a bizarre coincidence) who promoted estates of houses with large front gardens - and a front porch as the natural bridge between the garden and the house.
The front porch evolved into a practical place for the whole family to sit outside after dinner, gossip with passing neighbours, keep an eye on the neighbourhood and watch their children play. It has come to define the American way of life.
The term ‘shotgun house’ might originate from the West African Fon language word 'to-gun', meaning ‘place of assembly’.