In little Taylor, Mississippi, outside Oxford, a developer named Campbell McCool is building Plein Air, a 64-acre community that, in time, will include 200 wood-frame residences. Each house is advertised as traditionally Southern, most featuring wide front porches you can imagine sipping lemonade on. They have all the modern amenities a home buyer could desire, but if a customer wants a fence—and about a third do—it must be of white wooden pickets 40 inches high. Scratch-built and painted, that fence costs about $2,500, which buys not only a practical enclosure but a complicated piece of the American Dream.
Plein Air is a familiar vision of suburbia, one we’ve seen in countless movies, advertisements and television shows for more than half a century. But while the pickets remained a constant, our attitudes toward them changed. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra stages that postwar paean’s most optimistic scene, in which George Bailey woos Mary Hatch, in front of a picket fence. Forty years later, David Lynch opens his unsettling 1986 Blue Velvet with a pan down sinister pickets and overripe blossoms. And partway through the 2013 premiere of “The Americans” the camera cuts to the front yard of spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, set off by white pickets. “The white picket fence is a kind of shorthand for Americana,” says John Mott, production designer for the show’s first two seasons. “The point of ‘The Americans’ is what it’s like to live a fraudulent life. These people are not Americans—they’re Russian agents—but they have to blend into the American setting.”
Before they crossed the Atlantic, pickets meant something completely different. In Old Europe, pickets—from piquet, French for “pointed stick or board”—were military gear, logs sharpened to shield archers from cavalry. Needing to demarcate and perhaps defend their land, New World colonists installed fences of rough pickets, bare or painted white. 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 the late 1800s, developers of newfangled “suburbs” briefly made the borderless front yard trendy, scholar Fred E.H. Schroeder writes in Front Yard America. But fenceless yards were no match for the Colonial Revival design movement that appeared around the time of the 1876 centennial and championed the picket fence. The modest totem of middle-class prosperity stood even through the 1930s, when many American households couldn’t afford to whitewash a fence, never mind an entire house.
Blame the Cold War for doing in the picket fence. Whether seeking security, embracing new technology or dodging a tedious paint job, many ’50s-era suburbanites chain-linked their lots. But the symbolism of the white picket fence was inescapable, and it slid into popular culture as a visual shorthand for the good life. A kind, gentle America posed behind the pickets in television fantasies like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver”—an imaginary all-white realm in which the worst thing that could happen was Eddie Haskell teasing the Beaver.
The actual fences surged in popularity again in the 1980s, revived by New Urbanist developers attempting to recreate the appearance of walkable early suburbs. The look’s persistence amuses suburbia scholar Jeff Hardwick, who sees the modern picket fence as an echo of an echo. “Everything winds up looking like a suburb that hasn’t existed in 70 or 80 years,” he says.
Today picket fences are sometimes mandated by homeowner associations, a regimentation that renders a benign historic artifact alienating—the opposite of its nature. “You can see through it; if you need to, you can hop over it,” says developer McCool of the fence. “If you’re standing in your yard and someone on the sidewalk pauses, you can have a conversation.” As for the oft-invoked “good old days,” remember: Whether you’re talking about the 1980s or the 1890s, those times were no less complex than these times, when the American middle class that made the fence a hallmark occupies shaky ground.
The white picket fence is so simple—a few slats affixed to horizontal rails, a gate or two—as to invite endless interpretation. But maybe we should retire the pickets as metaphor and let them do what they do best: keep kids and dogs where they belong and encourage neighborly interaction. Enough deconstruction already. Let a fence be a fence.
Going to Seed
The sod story of a growing American obsession
Research by Anna Diamond and Matthew Browne