From The battlefield to the boulevard: A brief history of the white picket fence
“At the end of the day, all I truly want is to be married with 2.5 kids, a golden retriever, and a house with a two-car garage and a white picket fence.” – 95 percent of Americans.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It should. Most of us have been hearing variations of that phrase since before we knew what hearing was. It’s what we have been told is the American freakin’ dream! And why shouldn’t it be? That slice of Norman Rockwell-esque Americana is what generations of people have been taught to be a sign of success and stability.
But how did it get this way? How did something so mundane and basic as a few dozen pieces of cheaply painted wood slammed into the dirt come to signify something so infinitely desirable? That answer is a bit trickier.
Like most everything in life, pinpointing the exact origin story isn’t as simple as sticking a stake in the ground. It’s more like, using a post spade to dig a pilot hole, filling that hole with cement, placing your corner base stake into the ground, letting the cement dry around that stake for 24 hours and then supporting your further boards off that in evenly measured installments. You know…complicated.
Board to death
Pickets didn’t start off so pretty. What was once a weapon of war, point-ended pickets have wiped the blood off their tips and replaced them with coats of painted whitewash that even a whistling stiff like Tom Sawyer could appreciate.
Back in the glory gory days of yesteryear, pickets – borne from the French word “piquet” – were exclusively used in war. Warriors from “the olde country,” erected them to support battle men with the purpose of keeping bad things (ie, other sharpened projectiles) out of their camps. How did they work? Pretty well considering the time. But again, it’s not like they were protecting the squad from tomahawk missiles. Their biggest opposition was, probably someone else wielding a picket.
Throughout the 1800’s many of these not-so-terribly wounded warriors returned home and clearly inspired by witnessing their success on the battlefield, countless property-demarking creations began to take life up and down the United States eastern seaboard.
But, oh yes, there were haters. In 1841, Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscaping pioneer spit all over their aesthetic appeal when he deemed them to be “an abomination among the fresh fields, of which no person of taste could be found guilty.” Dang, Andrew. Take a chill pill. And ignoring Downing’s Joan Rivers-esque rant, “Fenceapalooza” moved into the public consciousness.
By the mid-1950s, post-World War II suburbia was the place to be. Following the strict confines of the battlefield, a simpler life that was close to, but not quite in the city, seemed like nirvana to those returning from war. And that land was brimming with fences. Largely in part to those returning troops gaining GI Bill benefits, owning a home was a reality. And no picket fence? Well, I guess you are okay with little Jimmy getting hit by one of the four automobiles that go puttering down the street each day, aren’t you? The desire for conformity became paramount and fences became the norm.
Unseen power of the picket fence
“Time After Time was my least favorite song,
Time After Time was my least favorite song.”
While I may not agree with Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus’ opinion on R.E.M.’s Reckoning album, his band’s 1994 track carries a name that brings an unmistakable visual to anyone’s mind: the picket fence. And as the song title implies, it does possess an unseen power, not just separating properties, but people as well. Physically and societally. The have’s vs. the have-nots. And not purely in terms of money. A barrier of any kind can have a bigger impact than perhaps many believe.
Upon hearing the term “gated community” many people might visualize a pristine, fairly haughty community with standards so unattainably high that it’s inhabitants have found no choice but to isolate themselves in a compound in order to preserve its serenity. This belief runs so deeply ingrained that according to the 2009 Census, there are more than 10 million housing units in the U.S. that fall within qualified gated communities which demarked homes “secured with walls or fences.”
But in reality, many of these closed-off infrastructures are just boring tightly-wound HOA communities which happen to have a cheap lock and a gate code (hint: an incredibly high percentage of them use 0000#. Give that a shot next time you are patiently waiting to drop off that Postmates order). Yet, the belief that “fence = class” remains.
Fences holding influence
A brief personal anecdote. When I was in middle school, my parents erected a white picket fence to border our front yard. This fence was nice, but not the safest due to their crucial design flaw that chose to leave both sides open. Additionally, the fence sat atop a cement bulkhead and ultimately, like most picket fences, it didn’t serve any actual physical purpose outside of “Aww, how cute” aesthetics. But this seemingly minor event led to a chain-reaction right out of the 1950s. Within a year, other neighbors had begun putting up their own white picket fences. We, living in the oldest home on the block, had started a neighborhood revolution and no one wanted to be left behind.
While no one from the Seattle City Council swung by and made a decree saying that our home was suddenly of more value due to our painted slats of wood (which, in rain-soaked Seattle became quickly brown and mud-splattered) it seemingly was the perception. And who were we to argue? The Cozens’ were now of self-appointed class! Also worth noting, we were the neighborhood “Block Watch” captains and in 1997, held a fundraising effort to buy a sign to inform anyone who entering the street that they were being watched. Within a month that sign was stolen. No culprit was ever found. We were not re-elected to the post.
Okay back to the point
The rise of suburbia led to the popularization of the picket fence. Every town from Marberry to Clampettville had those spiked wonders lining their lot. And they were no longer purely for protective purposes. Around this time the fence came to represent America we know today: closed off, but we still okay giving you a little peek inside if you were willing to work hard enough. It’s kind of like those annoying curtains that when you pull all the way shut it actually creates small gaps on either end. Just me? Are you telling me I bought the wrong size curtains? Crap.
Jeff Hardwick, who works for The Smithsonian, looks at the picket fence not as something modern or something antiquated, but more as something that comes from a time in and of itself every time they come back en vogue.
“Everything winds up looking like a suburb that hasn’t existed in 70 or 80 years,” Hardwick said.
Meaning that while so many of us say on the surface that we want to progress and evolve, the dream of an easier, simpler yesterday still calls to us. Even if those days aren’t as beautiful as we romance them to be.
Our society’s insatiable desire to maintain our own space has led to creative ways on how we approach it. While many of us want to be wrapped up and protected from the ills of society, we don’t want to look like snobs.
In 2012, writer Rich Benjamin penned: “Since you can say ‘gated community’ only so many times, developers hatched an array of Orwellian euphemisms to appease residents’ anxieties: ‘master-planned community,’ ‘landscaped resort community,’ ‘secluded intimate neighborhood.’”
No one in their right mind believes that a picket fence has the physical ability to stop an intruder, with its flimsy slats and incredibly hurdle-able height. But the psychological effects it has on those that pass by it have a far greater impact. When you pass a home with a picket fence, you are told you are passing the home of someone who takes pride in their appearance, who harkens back to a time of yesteryear and who values his or her own “plot” of land…and know exactly where it begins. Or they are just big 1800’s war-buffs.
So the next time you are taking your pooch out for a poop and you walk by a neighbor’s crib which features a dazzling array of vertical slats, appreciate the history that went into bringing those to his or her yard.
And then, let your dog defecate on their grass.