For many years, a home with white picket fence came to symbolize achievement of the American Dream. The image was first used in the 1940s and was immortalized in TV and film as the perfect accompaniment to wealth and success. Part of its popularity was psychological, representing safety and stability in response to the ravages of World War II.
Once considered a status symbol, the prevailing attitude toward the barrier has undergone a change and it’s now often viewed as a stylized version of perfection that doesn’t exist with somewhat creepy connotations. However, the innocent picket fence of Americana has darker origins.
Before coming to colonial America, the pickets of the fence – the upright “sticks” – were logs that were sharpened to a point and inserted into the ground. They were used to repel ground attacks and shield archers. They were known by the French word piquet. Pickets were one of the earliest defenses used in ancient times to protect against marauding tribes.
Early colonists also used pickets to frame their land and protect against encroachment by Native American tribes, bandits, and eventually troops sent by the King of England to quell the colonists’ rebellion. They were further used to defend against opposing troops during the Spanish-American War and the country’s Civil War.
White paint was cheap and to dress up the fences, early Americans began painting them white or using a mixture of lime and water to color them and act as a wood preservative. The white picket fence began to lose ground to chain link fencing in the 1950s as the Cold War arrived, but enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s.
The fencing also began to obtain a creepy connotation in response to several films that portrayed them as part of a regimented lifestyle that demanded the masses conform. For many, the white picket fence remains a symbol of those that prefer to live in a “perfect” world, blind to the realities of life.
The white picket fence is a simple barrier, but its impact on the U.S. was huge. It continues to be popular fencing option for keeping children and pets safely within their own yards. It’s typically lower than other types of fencing, thereby encouraging neighborly interaction and conversation. Love it or hate it, the white picket fence has become indelibly imprinted on the psyche as a uniquely American icon.
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