Pondering the Non-Use of Front Doors
Some years ago I remember visiting a friend in the countryside, parking my car at the end of a driveway that was already full of vehicles—some no longer running—approaching the sun porch and knocking on the door because it was locked and I couldn’t see a doorbell button. I had to knock loudly several times to get the attention of my friend, who didn’t seem to notice that her dogs were already well aware of my presence. It’s not like my visit was impromptu—I’m a planner—but finally I heard a voice from deep inside the house saying, “Go around back. That’s locked.”
After being graciously welcomed through the back door, I had to ask, “What’s up with the front door?” The reply was, “We haven’t used that in years,” and the yews that had all but grown together at the top of the front porch stairs more or less bore testament to that fact. Not long after that, I experienced a similar situation and was greeted by a sign hanging at the rear entrance that read, “Back Door Guests are Best.”
It appeared that this was more phenomenon than fluke, but I had more or less forgotten about it until I moved back to the area in the spring and realized that many people in the country never use the front doors to their homes. Furniture is often placed against the door from the inside. In more than a few cases, I have noticed—even at brand new houses—there is no sidewalk or stairs to the front door.
In discussions with my friends about what to me was a peculiarity, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in most cases, the individual family’s tradition of not using the front door often goes back so many years that the family members themselves can no longer remember why the front door was sealed off to begin with.
Some simple explanations have been offered, the most common of which is, if the driveway extends to the rear of the house, the back door was seen as more practical for bringing in the groceries and/or the children and eventually became a habit. After a number of years, the neglected front door sometimes became unusable due to shifting or swelling of the house, and the original entryway was all but forgotten.
Several people my age or older admit that they have no idea why the front door of their childhood homes were never used. In my search for a home to purchase in this area, I looked at a house with a magnificent front porch and two front doors with no front stairs. Both doors had furniture placed against them on the inside, and one of the doors was literally nailed shut. The daughter did not know why, and, despite my obvious intention to buy the property, she was clearly uncomfortable when I insisted that we move a small table and exit the front door from the dining room to the otherwise unused front porch.
“I have never been through this door,” she exclaimed as we walked out of the house.
“How does it feel?” I asked.
“Really nice,” she answered. Indeed, I feel that passing through the mysteriously-locked door was somewhat liberating for her.
In my ongoing quest for the truth about unused front doors, someone brought to light a Victorian-era custom that was common to families who lived in large houses with two front entrances. One door generally led to the dining room and was used by guests, while family members more regularly went in and out the back door. The second front door usually led to the “parlor,” which, in the days before funeral parlors were commonplace, would serve as a funeral room when a family member passed away. The undertaker would come to the home to prepare the body for the event, which would take place within a few days of his or her passing. Only then would the second front door be unlocked to permit friends and family members to come in to the parlor to view the deceased and pay their condolences.
There. I’ve found one solid tradition that explains the non-use of some front doors at some homes, but there have to be more reasons than that for such a widespread phenomenon. While you may use both doors at your home, it’s likely that there is someone in your family who does not. I’m anxious to hear your front door/back door stories. Please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Type “front door” in the subject line.