MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
We return now to our occasional late summer series examining the role of the porch in American life. As we've been pondering the glories and the history of the porch, we notice that a number of them across the country share a certain feature. In many cases the ceiling is painted blue. Sometimes bright, sometimes subtle. Sometimes tending a bit towards periwinkle or more towards the turquoise hues of the ocean. In any case, it got us wondering what's the story behind the blue ceilings. Coincidence, trend or talisman?
Mr. CARL LANGHORNE (Hardware store manager): I'm more preferential towards the periwinkle. If you give me a second I'll pull the chip.
NORRIS: At Strosnider's Hardware Store in Bethesda, Maryland, way back in the corner, past hous ewares in the storage bins ,you'll find the busy paint department, where Carl Langhorne is the assistant manager. He says that week after week without fail, customers come searching for a specific shade of paint for their porch ceilings.
Mr. LANGHORNE: They'll ask what's the color that you usually paint ceilings, the blue color.
NORRIS: Thinking that there is like -
Mr. LANGHORNE: Yeah, there's a standard like a ceiling white. They think there is a ceiling blue, you know. I want that blue the color of the sky. I want it to feel like the sky. Open, I don't want to feel boxed in, you know. I say what sky? Is it a rainy day sky or clear day sky?
NORRIS: And as it turns out, the theories about the origins of the custom vary too. And there are a lot of them.
Mr. LANGHORNE: Some people want it because it's the sky and it makes them feel open. It's a blue color, which is calming and relaxing. If you're from the American South - and depending on your nationality and where you're from -you'll believe that it chases away evil spirits. It brings good luck, good fortune, so everybody has something.
NORRIS: In the South Carolina low country, they have a name for that blue on their porch ceiling.
Mr. ALPHONSO BROWN (Gullah Tours, Charleston): We call it haint blue.
NORRIS: That's Alphonso Brown, he's a guide with Gullah tours in Charlestown, South Carolina, which means he knows quite a bit about way people paint their porches with haint blue.
Mr. BROWN: Haint is a spirit. Haint is just a ghost. Haint blue. There are a couple of things about that blue. Blue is believed to ward off evil spirits. We'll take the blue and trim the windows around, you know the molding around the windows. We do that blue and around the doors, because we believe blue wards off evil spirits, and then it keeps the hags from coming in at you. The hags can't stand the blue.
NORRIS: The hags?
Mr. BROWN: I guess that's another subject, isn't it.
NORRIS: Who are the hags?
Mr. BROWN: A hag was like a person who could come out of their skin and they would ride you. In other words, I don't want to make it sound like some sexual connotation, but my grandparents and my cousins, all of them would tell about hag ride me last night. I knew who it was. I remember that old lady. I saw the way she looked at me and I just knew she was going to ride me.
And so a hag was just a little old person who just didn't have a life and had the ability to basically come out of their skin. So what you would do, if you had an idea who it is and you kind of track that person at night and the person come out of their skin, you sprinkle some salt on their skin and they can't go back on it so it's revenge against the person, you know the hag. Or at night when they go bed a lot of folks would put the broom across the door, because the hag can't cross a broom.
NORRIS: Alphonso, what happens out there in the low country? What happens under those blue ceilings out on the porch?
Mr. BROWN: Talk, just mumble and talk and easy life. After you work all day and people, neighbors will come by and they will sit on the porch and you just talk about things. You just talk.
NORRIS: Paint a picture for me. What would I see?
Mr. BROWN: This lady, my grandmamma, would sit on the porch and one of her neighbors would come by and - Phyllis, how you do today? Oh, all right, yeah. Kind of hot today. God is sure enough hot but that's God's business. Yeah, sure enough.
You going to the church meeting tonight? Yeah. I going to the meeting, I going to be there, be right there. I hear about Annabelle's sick. Oh (unintelligible) yeah. They tell me sicker than the death. Yeah, yeah. I tell, you, ain't long now, Grace. Just thought I'd tell you, it sure ain't long, I tell you. You have to live right. That's right, you have to live right.
Just talk and nothing in the scenery that presents new conversation. You know, it's not in the city where you see a truck going by or you see a car going. Who's that fellow over there? You see a lot of people. It's in the country. All they see is mostly bushes and trees and bugs and snakes and that's basically it.
NORRIS: Now there are other theories behind the blue paint. Some say it helps extend daylight as dusk begins to fall, and many, including Alphonso Brown, believe that it helps keeps bugs away, especially bees and wasps that might try to build their nests in porch ceilings.
Mr. BROWN: We didn't have any trouble with bee nests, bees making their nests up in the ceiling of the porch. That could be very uncomfortable if you want to sit on your porch. And so I later found that bees do not want to have that look of the open air, of the blue. They want to be protected like. With that blue, it looks like open skies. So they wouldn't build their nests under there. It really works. It works.
NORRIS: Now, we can't really test Alphonso Brown's theory that blue paint wards off evil spirits or hags. We can call an expert in hopes of finding out if it really does ward off bugs. Nathan Erwin, director of the O. Orkin Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Institution, would seem like the right guy to ask. While he knew about people painting their porch ceilings blue, he didn't know about the banished bugs theory, so he and his colleagues checked into it and they found no scientific research on the subject of insects and blue porch ceilings. So he's issuing a challenge.
Mr. NATHAN ERWIN (O. Orkin Insect Zoo, Smithsonian): Well I think it's certainly an interesting study to pursue, since there seems to be some anecdotal information, is taking that and running a number of tests. Maybe a good project for a college student or possibly a graduate student.
NORRIS: Any takers?
BLOCK: Hundreds of you have taken us up on our invitation to send us your porch stories, including Margaret Crumb of Pittsburgh. She's a research assistant at a local hospital and she lives in an old house that's been converted into apartments.
Ms. MARGARET CRUMB (Pittsburgh resident): If it weren't for my front porch, I'd never have known that the people living next to me are all from different countries. When the weather warmed up and we began spending time on our porches, we started talking.
I spent the most time with Mike. He's an older gentleman from Armenia. He comes over to my porch and we try to talk, but neither of us seems to understand much of what the other is saying. On more than one occasion he has given up on conversation and walked down to the drugstore on the corner.
He comes back with a couple of scratch off lottery tickets. One for me and one for him. He hands me a penny and we wordlessly reveal our inevitable losses. We say next time, and understand each other right away.
NORRIS: That's porch sitter Margaret Crumb of Pittsburgh. If you'd like to read some of the other porch stories we received, they're at our Web site NPR.org.