Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Screen Houses or Cool Houses

On Friday, March 14, I published some photos of my recent visit to Portsmouth Island. I have had questions about the small screen house (sometimes called a cool house or a milk house) in Henry Pigott's yard, and exactly what it was used for. Realizing that I did not provide any independent confirmation of my description of the screen house and my explanation of its use, I searched the Internet for more information. None was forthcoming. 

So...several days ago I carried this photo of Henry Pigott's Portsmouth Island screen house across the lane, and showed it to cousin Blanche (she is 94 years old).


I made just this simple request: "Blanche, tell me what this is, and what it would be used for." 

This is what she said:

"It's over at Portsmouth, but I don't know where. It's one of those little...what did they call them. I can't think right now what mama called them. It's a screened in box. If you're going to kill you a chicken on Saturday, you put them in this box to keep them cool til Sunday.

"It was to keep food cool so it couldn't spoil. Mama used to keep her salt pork in it on the bottom shelf. A lot of people had them. They made them themselves." 

Of course, these screen or cool houses wouldn't keep food fresh for very long, say in July and August. But they were useful for protecting food for short periods, especially overnight.

I am wondering if screen houses like this are unique to the Outer Banks. I haven't been able to find any other references to them on the Internet. 

This is a photo Dave Frum took of the Screen House/Cool House behind the Salter House on Portsmouth:


And this is a closeup of the sign:

Here is a photo of the screen house Blanche's daddy made many years ago:

You can read more here:

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter documents the day telephones came to the island. The article includes images of Ocracoke's first telephone directory which lists a total of 63 subscribers. You can read the Newsletter here:   


  1. Anonymous10:07 AM

    Maybe next time you won't waste your time googling-- the information you get from Blanchepedia is much more reliable.
    How is OI's first lady?

    1. Oh, I agree. I was doing an Internet search to see if these screen/cool houses were used anywhere else but the Outer Banks. I was looking for other confirmation about their use.

      Blanche is doing great. But she is looking forward to warmer weather.

  2. Anonymous11:07 AM

    Anon 10:07 I guess you never saw the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. Scenes in this movie reminded us that the old fashioned low tech library archive is a valuable resource. Yes, time consuming, and sources for corroboration. Blanche is one source. I have seen Pie safes, a screened in book case of sorts, but it was kept inside the house, maybe on the back porch. I suppose someone thought the breeze would aid the freshness factor and the screen house was built and placed outside. However, so far from the main living quarters, I question the refrigerator aspect. During the winter did PI residents allow water to freeze and use in the screen house during Spring? This Mystery has not been solved in my book! Did anyone in Blanche's family keep a hand written journal of daily life?? Thank you PH or the post. p.s. She did say a chicken was kept in it so perhaps that use became more popular -- a Chicken storage unit. LOL

  3. Anonymous11:21 AM

    Perhaps ,if one embarks on an internet search with the key words --food preservation without refrigeration-- it will help. Mother Earth News and communes no doubt employed many long abandoned methods I am sure the internet touches upon this topic. Or WPA archives when folks scoured this country gathering folk songs and pictures and oral histories. Studs Terkel probably knows something or did....

    1. If there is information out there about other communities with Portsmouth/Ocracoke-style screen/cool houses, I haven't been able to find it.

  4. Anonymous12:15 PM

    I am from Georgia and While i have never seen the screen houses, pie safes were quite common here in the days before refrigeration. The screen or punched tin allow air flow and keeps them from getting too hot. I have seen and heard of them being on large covered porches, effectively being the same thing as the screen houses you are talking about.

    In areas with spring water,especially in the Appalachians, spring houses were a common way to keep food cool, and in some areas they can come close to refrigerator temperatures.


    1. Yes, Chris, pie safes are similar, and were fairly common in Southern rural areas, maybe in cities also. .

  5. Debbie Leonard1:49 PM

    While not exactly the same, in the mountains people used spring houses, similar little houses built over a stream or branch, to keep things cool. They were very common and I have seen them before. Here is a wikipedia article about them:

  6. Julie S7:01 PM

    This is off topic but the last time I vacationed on Ocracoke I noticed what I assume were present day cisterns - very large containers, usually in a carport, with lots of piping coming from them. Is that what they are? Do they collect rain water? Are they effective? Do the homes also have public water? Did these homes choose not to hook into the public water system or is it unavailable where they are located? Thanks!! Happy Spring!!

    1. For a while there were sections of the Oyster Creek area that were not served by our municipal water system. I'm not sure if that is still the case. But folks there installed large fiberglass tanks to use as rainwater cisterns. I think this is what you are referring to.

  7. Anonymous9:27 AM

    PH the North Carolina (Ag) Extention Service has a feature "Ask an Expert" I typed in the screen house question and well red letters popped up-internal error. Good Grief. anyway apparently you need to typed quick short questions. Something, I am apparently unable to do. So I share this feature, Ask an Expert with you and your readers , perhaps thousands of questions on this topic at the ATE desk will change the world as we know it!