On the piazza . . .

The duplex home at 37 Summer St. is in the foreground of this detail of a circa 1900 view looking northwest.
The duplex home at 37 Summer St. is in the foreground of this detail of a circa 1900 view looking northwest.

Recent entries from Nina Winn’s 1916 diary include descriptions of her having lunch or reading “on the piazza.”  Nowadays, to American-English speakers, the word “piazza” typically conjures thoughts of the open public spaces that are characteristic of cities in Italy.  But in Nina Winn’s time, piazza was a popular term in the United States for what is referred to today simply as a “porch.”  

Looking northeast, 37 Summer St. is featured the distance at right, circa 1900. This scene nicely depicts the water and steeply banked landscape of Fowle’s Mill Pond.
Looking northeast, 37 Summer St. is featured the distance at right, circa 1900. This scene nicely depicts the water and steeply banked landscape of Fowle’s Mill Pond. Click on image to view in closer detail.

The term “piazza” has appeared only recently in Nina’s diary, and the explanation for that seems obvious.  Previously Nina lived at her childhood home at 146 Mystic St., then with her maiden aunts in the Winn family homestead at 57 Summer St.  Neither of those homes had a porch.  But earlier in 1916 (the year currently being presented in daily installments) Nina has moved into half of the duplex house where her Aunt Sarah Daniels Winn resides, at 37 Summer St.  This house has a full-width covered front porch, providing a shady spot overlooking Fowle’s Mill Pond across Summer Street, where Nina can enjoy a book or work on her embroidery.

More broadly speaking, the term piazza, applied to describe covered or open porches (the latter often featuring a retractable awning), indicated something bigger and better than a front-door shelter.  The term piazza had been in increasing use since before Nina was born in 1877.    Architect E.F. Hussey’s 1874 catalogue Homes for Every One, Chiefly Low-Priced Buildings in Towns, Suburbs, and Country refers to piazzas and verandas in identical construction and ornamentation terms; otherwise, a veranda is simply a somewhat smaller version of a piazza.  This mild differentiation possibly is due to piazzas being associated with generously proportioned outdoor leisure spaces that characterized stylish resort hotels.

The Horton Family enjoys the covered front porch of their house on Pleasant Street. Click on image to view in closer detail.
The Horton Family enjoys the covered front piazza of their house on Pleasant Street.

In the mid-1880s, Boston department store Houghton & Dutton advertised a wide range wicker and rattan “piazza furniture.”   One of the items in this category was “veranda settee,” another example among many showing that piazza and veranda could be used to talk about essentially the same thing.  

 By the turn of the twentieth century, piazza took on grander dimensions, both literally and figuratively.  The popular press (especially women’s magazines) spoke of “the piazza life,” pointing out that for postures such as lazing in a hammock “tight skirts cannot be worn,” and recommending fashion solutions that would carry the name for decades of “piazza frock.”    

The monthly ladies’ magazine The Puritan, took the notion further in 1900, declaring a veritable “piazza craze” and observing:

It is piazza room rather than closets that the housewife clamors for.  “Give me liberty or give me the blues,” cry the fresh air fanatics.   “Who wants to be within four walls?”

The thrifty minded argue economically: “Why not cultivate piazza life in every way, since it saves internal [indoor] wear and tear, and keeps the stains off furniture and carpets?”

Oh! shades of our ancestral stoops or contracted front porches of the last decade, how you must be agape at the wondrous evolution!  Nobody in rural or suburban life during the season goes indoors unless he’s obliged to.  All the comforts of home he finds outside.  There are rugs and couches and cushions, hammocks little and big, settees and chairs and small nooks.  A tea-table is in constant readiness, and a desk well equipped.  Even a sewing machine is not out of place.

Nina Winn's Niece and Nephew play on the porch of their nearby home. Click on image to view in closer detail.
Nina Winn’s niece and nephew play on a piazza.

Fine homebuilding during the ensuing decades featured screened piazzas, even as demands were increasing for garages to be integrated into the footprint of the dwelling, rather than as standalone structures.  And in the endless quest to emulate the best of architectural trends, even rather modest two-family houses were advertised as offering front and rear piazzas.  

With the piazza enjoying such popularity, why has the term all-but-disappeared from modern usage?  Examining the frequency of the word piazza appearing in the Boston Globe in the century between 1875 and 1975 we can see its usage to describe a sitting porch doubling with each decade, reaching peak volume in 1925 (mirroring classified real estate listings of the suburban building boom of the “Roaring Twenties”) and tapering off rapidly from there.  Of note, the usage pattern of the word veranda closely follows that of piazza over the decades, but veranda appears about half as often as piazza.

In post-World War II home construction, space formerly devoted to the piazza tended to become the breezeway connecting kitchen with garage, be it for Cape Cod- or the newer ranch-style dwellings.  The evolution of outdoor leisure space would move further from street view into backyards, where patios took hold, which soon lost favor to the “back deck” of the 1970s, a building feature that remains popular today.  

Nina Louise Winn (1877-1958) was the daughter of George Prentiss Winn (1846-1907) and his wife Melissa Sarah Bacon Winn (1853-1886). In 1901, Nina was living with her widowed father and her brother George Albert Winn (1873-1942) at 146 Mystic Street, Arlington, MA. This 1908 photo is of Nina dressed in Colonial dress, participating in an Arlington Historical Society event.
Nina Louise Winn (1877-1958) was a prolific diarist. Her diaries from 100 years ago are transcribed by a volunteer. This 1908 photo is of Nina dressed in Colonial dress, participating in an Arlington Historical Society event.

From 1955 onwards, assuming the Boston Globe to be a good indicator of prevailing speech in the region, piazza is merely a term of yesteryear when describing a porch.  From this point forward it most frequently appears in connection with stories and advertisements for travel to Italy, followed by Piazza, a surname of Italian origin.  As for veranda, that appears mostly in connection to cruise ships.

In spoken language, piazza lingered longer than in print.  It became a way that “grandpa and grandma talked,” its meaning understood by their grandchildren, but never becoming a treasured linguistic inheritance that they would pass on to subsequent generations.  Like Nina Winn’s piazza itself, shorn from her home as Summer Street was widened from a quiet, rural road to busy east-west thoroughfare, the word piazza has vanished along with that past.

2 thoughts on “On the piazza . . .

  1. When I was a kid, growing up in a Boston Tenement, circa 1960, we referred to our back porch as a piazza.

  2. My mom, a native New Englander, still refers to her deck overlooking a lake in NH as “the piazza”. I use the word occasionally too, not realizing it was out of style.

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