Sleeping porches were once an architectural staple across the South, and today's home design experts believe beautiful porches are poised to make a comeback.
Not to be confused with the front porch, which was for entertaining visitors, the sleeping porch usually consisted of a screened-in porch or deck area that allowed the family to enjoy cool breezes while sleeping – without getting eaten up by mosquitos and other pests. The rise of the porch in the 20th century has some surprising parallels with its sudden increase in popularity today.
The Sleeping Porch’s Place in History
Before the glorious invention of air conditioning, homes in the American South and West often became unbearably hot in the summer, making for miserable sleeping conditions.
Beautiful porches were a common architectural feature for a range of home styles, from stately Queen Anne Victorian homes to practical Craftsman bungalows and the humble farmhouse. Sleeping porches sometimes took the form of screened balconies just off the bedroom, but more commonly, there was one big porch at the back of the house where the whole family bedded down on scorching summer nights.
In the 1920s, demand for homes with sleeping porches suddenly spiked with the “sanitary revolution.” Germs were not fully understood at the time, but scientists were on the right track: they knew that the rise of diseases like cholera and tuberculosis were connected with the overcrowded conditions created by the Industrial Revolution, and the mass migration into urban areas. Fresh air became a common cure-all prescription, prompting people to seek outdoor sleeping space.
The Decline of Porches
Once people understood more about microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, the “fresh air” directive declined in favor of antibiotics, vaccines, and sanitation measures, like hand washing and safe food handling.
With the hysteria over, the popularity of sleeping porches entered a dormant phase before falling out of favor entirely with the rise of air conditioning. Homes were no longer built to harness natural breezes; instead, they were designed to keep artificially cooled air inside. Windows stayed shut year-round, and kids were admonished to “shut that door before you let all the cool air out!” Homebuyers no longer listed porches as a top priority.
Staging a Revival
The design pendulum always swings back eventually. Outdoor living space is currently enjoying its moment in the sun, and the covered porch appears to be making a comeback. Just as early 20th century homebuyers sought out porches in reaction to a public health crisis, their 21st century counterparts have rediscovered the health benefits of sleeping outdoors.
Exposure to natural light cycles and getting away from artificial light, especially from our tech gadgets like smartphones and computers, can help regulate the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep. Being around the soothing sights and sounds of nature can also cut cortisol production, reducing stress.
Energy efficiency is another factor making porches a popular choice these days, as they cut down on the need to run the AC 24/7. According to home expert Bob Vila’s website, 63 percent of homebuyers in 2008 listed a porch as a top priority.
If you live in a home with a screened in porch for sleeping, consider yourself lucky and check out Houzz’s guide to turning your porch into a sleeper’s paradise. If not, there are still ways to enjoy some of the benefits of outdoor rest and relaxation. It’s fairly inexpensive to screen in an existing porch. Or, you can rig up a hammock and mosquito net system right in your backyard. With a little resourcefulness, you can harness those cool breezes on hot summer nights just like our forefathers did.