Where the white picket fence got its start in America

Fences make for good neighbors,” so says the poem “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. Whether that is true or not the white picket fence has become an iconic American status symbol and has been the modest totem of middle-class prosperity since the 1950s. It has become the emblem of the ideal middle-class suburban life with a family, large house, and serene living.

This style of fence often serves more as a decoration since it generally stands no more than four feet tall. Popular since America’s earliest colonial era this style of fence has endured the test of time. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the iconic aspect of the white picket fence got started in Taylor, Mississippi, outside Oxford, when a developer named Campbell McCool built a 64-acre community, known as Plein Air, which included 200 wood-framed residences. Each home was advertised as traditionally Southern with a wide front porch and the potential for a white picket fence if the buyer so desired. Seems about one-third did want the fence.

Not everyone loved the iconic little fence. In 1841 landscape design pioneer Andrew Jackson Downing brought harsh criticism against the fence declaring them “an abomination of which no person of taste could be found guilty.” As the country spread west, Downing lost his battle against the little white icon.

In the late 1800s, developers of innovative suburbs briefly made borderless front yards fashionable, 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. They even survived through the 1930s when many American households couldn’t afford to whitewash a fence.

Philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said of the inventor of the fence, “ The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘ This is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.”

These days fences come in all types of materials and designs to serve a variety of purposes. Some neighborhoods have restrictions that do not allow homeowners to put up certain types of fences such as chain link fences, who knows maybe in 100 years the chain link fence will be the status symbol.

— Marla Ballard’s Master of Disguise normally appears in the Times-Journal Wednesday editions.

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