White Picket Fences: The History of an American Symbol

No 1950’s sitcom was complete without a beautiful yard, a stylish car, and a white picket fence surrounding it all. Indeed, the white picket fence came to symbolize the ideal middle-class American life: a privately owned house, in a safe neighborhood, on a modest but beautiful patch of land. In today’s blog post, our Charlotte fence contractor dives into the history of the white picket fence, and what it still symbolizes today.

Colonial Beginnings

White fences started being associated with prosperity in colonial times. Since whitewash—a mixture of water and lime–was expensive and harder to maintain than plain wooden fences, those who owned a white fence were usually well-off.

The term “picket” has colonial beginnings, as well. Derived from the French word piquet, a 1700s picket was a sharpened log used to shield archers from cavalry. When colonists navigated to the New World, they used similar pointed logs to mark and defend their land. Over the decades, the picket gradually became slimmer and narrower, until it became the slightly pointed slat we use today.

Picket Fences in the 1800s

In the 19th century, mass production made fence parts cheaper and fancier, and the picket fence became fashionable from New England to Key West. But not everyone loved fences. In 1841, landscape design pioneer Andrew Jackson Downing denounced them as “an abomination among the fresh fields, of which no person of taste could be found guilty.” Downing lost that round; as the nation spread west, so did fencing. In 1876, a Colonial Revival design movement made the picket fence more popular than ever. It remained a totem of middle-class prosperity until the 1930s, when many American households couldn’t afford to whitewash a fence.

The 1950’s and the 1980’s

As television emerged in the 1950s, so did popular notions of the ideal American home and lifestyle. Popular shows such as I Love Lucy showed happy nuclear families living and thriving in peaceful middle-class homes. To quote the words of Smithsonian writer Michael Dolan, “A kind, gentle America posed behind the pickets in television fantasies…an imaginary all-white realm in which the worst thing that could happen was Eddie Haskell teasing the Beaver.”

When the mood of the nation changed, so did the picket fence. As Americans became fearful of a third World War with Russia, housing designs began to favor spiked metal fences—symbols of protection and security, not post-war bliss.

White Pickets Are Revived

Today, white picket fences are a nostalgic reminder of a bygone area. As one developer put it, “You can see through it; you can hop over it. If you’re standing in your yard and someone on the sidewalk pauses, you can have a conversation.” Even though the “good old days” were often as politically complex as ours are, that hasn’t stopped the white picket fence from becoming a visual shorthand for the good life: openness, friendliness, and prosperity.

James Fence and Gate is a custom fence contractor serving Charlotte NC and its surrounding areas. To request a free fence installation estimate, please contact us here.