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From Ponies to Pintos: The Automobilization of America

Before the mass production of automobiles, people relied on horses to go from one place to another when walking was not possible. Because towns were set up such that people could generally walk from their homes to the town center, even horses were not popular means of transportation. The high number of folks who walked contributed to the social structure of the community -- because people were not in a hurry to get to their destinations, even a short trip downtown became a social event. Porches, then, took on the role of being a stage for socialization. People stopped on their way to town and chatted with neighbors who were outside reading, knitting or engaging in conversation.

 

 

Before the automobilization of America, houses were set far back from the road. Because land was affordable and people often had large yards, they wanted to make use of it. There was a definite sense of pride in the ownership.

Setting the house back from the street was a visual statement -- people who rode by on horses had the opportunity to take in the entire house, landscape and all. One stark visual element to the house was the porch. Having the house set back on the land made building elaborate porches easy. Porches stood out from the house and were a welcome mat to passer-bys.

 

Following World War 2, major changes in society occurred. There was a growth in population, and there was a move toward more people seeking jobs outside the home and their neighborhood. There were also major developments in technology.

As automobiles came into mass production, so did major roads. The spread of highways and interstates allowed people to move more freely -- people took jobs further away from home and began moving away from cities and big towns. Suburbs began to develop, as developers and builders received financial incentives to begin mass producing homes and neighborhoods for the blossoming middle class.

When people moving out of the cities started to move into the suburbs, there was less of a need for porches and more of a need for garages to park their cars. Privacy became valued more highly in the middle class and porches began disappearing from the landscape.

However, people did not want to do without some individuality in their homes. They wanted to make sure they came home to the right house. Because people began valuing their privacy, they did not want a very public space such as a porch to be that sense of individuality. Instead, people began making use of the backs of their homes and built patios. This space, unlike the public front of the porch, is instead an extension of the private space inside a house. It does not face the street and does not invite the neighbors to socialize.

Patios also continue to be a private space when people screen them in or have them raised high above the ground-level. Many times, the houses have fences around them, which are another obstacle in community-building. In the age of porches, fences were short and easy to communicate around. Now, however, fences are larger, bulkier and much more of a privacy shield than a decorative aspect of the landscaping.

Because of the need for housing, land prices are higher now than they were in the past. Instead of building homes that sat far back from the street and allowed for elaborate porches, homes now are much closer to the street. Porches have been replaced with garages for parking the car. No longer do people have to walk from the street, up the sidewalk, to the steps and through the porch to get to the private life offered inside a house -- now, people can park in their garage and enter right into the private space or, in an instance where garages are not attached or parking is limited to the street, people need only walk from the car to the front door. They are not inhibited by a long walk up a sidewalk or a walk through the porch, where they could potentially be stopped for conversation. Similarly, when people need to get to their cars from the house, there are no road blocks to doing so.

Aside from the prominence of garages is the disappearance of the front door. In many homes now, the garage takes center stage, and the front door is sunken back into the house. This permits a sense of privacy and isolation.

In a small town like Mount Vernon, Iowa, these changes are very apparent. Follow this link to see this shift from ponies to pintos.

This website created by Kelly Bartolotta and Jessica Rundlett. For questions or comments, please send us an e-mail by clicking on either of our names.