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The Best Picket Fences for Old Houses

Once an agricultural necessity, the wood fence became an architectural device and symbol of home. By Catherine Lundie

    The gracefully curved picket fence from New England Cedar Fence is sold in sections from 4' to 8' wide.

    The white picket fence, still an emblem of domesticity, came into its own during the mid- to late 18th century. George Nash, author of the informative book Wooden Fences, notes that the Georgian era saw the emergence of the picket fence “as an architectural ornament instead of an agricultural necessity.” What brought about the evolution?

    Affluent and cosmopolitan urban trading centers like Boston and Philadelphia were being swept by the European craze for neoclassical design. Architecture, furniture, wall coverings—and even fences—featured sophisticated classical ornament. Usually, the fence echoed some detail of the Georgian home’s exterior, itself based on idealized classic Greek and Roman architecture. Posts, for example, might be topped with graceful carved urn finials. Pickets were sometimes replaced by turned balusters, and rails might be curved and molded.

    Picket fences along a street in Newport, Rhode Island, are shaped rather than flat. Styles reflect neoclassical motifs. (Photo: Eric Roth)

    These stylish fences were customarily painted white or the color of the house: usually a neutral shade, as houses of the time were popularly painted to imitate stone construction.

    The march of the picket fence from the Atlantic seaboard to towns and villages throughout America took a bit longer. By 1820, the front yards of most farmhouses were sporting smart picket fences. These fences had moved away from the high style of the Georgian era to reflect the fledging republic’s patriotic ideals and homespun aesthetic.

    Despite the shift in landscape design to a more naturalistic landscape, by about 1850, the white picket fence was here to stay. Nash explains it had become firmly established throughout the country “not only as an emblem of dignity and charm for the modest home of the genteel urban and suburban middle classes, but also as a poignant badge of civilization in the precarious settlements of the western wilderness.”

    The 18th-century brick Wickersham House in Maryland is enclosed by a spearhead picket fence with a gate. (Photo: Franklin & Esther Schmidt)

    Fences became more decorated and intricate in the mid-19th century, when the Victorian taste for ornamentation was buoyed by the invention of industrial band saws and scroll saws. Popular taste changed yet again as Colonial Revival fervor was kindled toward the end of the 19th century. Those flamboyant Victorian fences were torn down, and a more reserved picket fence re-emerged. It is this style that has remained, to this day, a fundamental symbol of home ownership and the American dream.

    Beyond the symbolic, though, what accounts for the picket fence’s enduring appeal? Its versatility, perhaps. Colonial Revival homes themselves can range from quaint to proper, and there’s a picket to complement every style. Common designs for decoratively cut board tops available today include square, dog-ear, sawtooth (angled), diamond point, scallop, spear, and fleur-de-lis. If you look a bit be yond your local home center, you can find others: pyramid, circle, acorn. Decorative cutouts are another option: circles, hearts, and slim notches are historical choices.

    A classical fence at the 1809 King Caesar House in Massachusetts has plain square pickets and beefy posts topped with ornamental urns. (Photo: Paul Rocheleau)

    Combine any picket with an unadorned post, and the look becomes pleasantly picturesque. Add a more substantial post with a beefy, multilayered cap, and you achieve a more formal feel. Fence-post finials, too, have a role to play. Although the fancy neoclassical urns of the past may be hard to come by or expensive, a ball finial or a welcoming pineapple are both traditional choices.

    Maintenance-free vinyl fences are attractive to some homeowners; it was no accident that Tom Sawyer was sent to whitewash the fence as punishment! Wood, however, remains the traditional choice. You can, of course, leave it unpainted and natural, but the white picket fence remains a classic.

    Published in: Early Homes Early Homes Fall 2012

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