The Dutch gave us Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Ann Frank and, of course, the beautiful tulip. We think fondly of their windmills, their dikes, their odd wooden shoes and tasty cheeses. How charmingly retro! How terribly incorrect!
The Dutch have been expanding scientific boundaries for centuries. The tulip was a nice, profitable sideline, but around the time they adopted it in the 16th century, Dutchmen invented the telescope and the microscope. Also, back then, they settled on our East Coast. Much of what is now the New York metro area, including parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, was known then as New Netherlands before the British moved in.
Over the years the Dutch have been busy inventing the stock market, the cassette, the CD, DVD, Blu-Ray, Bluetooth and, for the Brits, a submarine. WiFi was made possible by prior Dutch inventions. You can look it up.
Now that we’ve got the Dutch record fairly straight, I’d like to write about one of their other inventions that gets hardly any press, one that improved our neighborhoods and added highlights to my childhood- the front stoop.
Early Dutch settlers in the New York area were accustomed, back home, to living in elevated houses. Some Dutch towns were a few feet below the level of the North Sea which challenged and sometimes flowed over their dikes and into their canals and living rooms. Needing a few feet of leeway, they built raised houses with “stoeps”, mini porches with steps up to their front doors.
What was flood protection in the Netherlands eventually added to the quality of life in America. Before air conditioning, Dutch-influenced stoops were places of retreat from the sweltering summer heat of family homes and tenements. With everyone hanging out on their front steps on steamy nights, there were bound to be exchanges of greetings and gossip with stoop-sitting neighbors. Passing strangers were also subjected to friendly inquiries, thereby providing a modicum of crime prevention.
My late lamented dog Phoebe loved to sit on our front stoop and watch the world go by. I began to join her, mainly to prevent any attempts to harrass a passing cat, but sitting there beside her on the cool stone step, watching a sunset, brought back memories of my early stoop days.
During the day we kids would play a stoop ballgame. A “batter” would fire a Spaulding rubber ball toward the edge of a step and it would rebound smartly as opposing fielders tried to snag the flyball or bouncing grounder. In the meantime the batter was scurrying around the bases chalked on the pavement. This game has probably been miniaturized electronically where the players now only exercise their thumbs.
In the evenings we sat on our stoops, doused in citronella and holding glowing cattails to ward off the mosquitoes. Kids played games like “Ghost” and “Truth, Dare or Consequences” while our parents chatted and tried to forget for awhile the ongoing Depression and we all awaited the musical arrival of the Good Humor Man and his five-cent desserts.
Too soon, World War II events were topics of stoop conversations. I learned a lot about the war from passing G.I.’s who stopped and told us about their experiences. Some were rookies, proud of their new uniforms. Others wore combat badges and Purple Heart ribbons. The stoop was our Facebook then, only much more genuinely person to person.