No 50’s sitcom was complete without a happy family, a beautiful yard, and of course, a white picket fence. For decades, white picket fences have symbolized the dream of a middle class American lifestyle: A moderate house on its own privately-owned property, surrounded by a fence that’s more of a decorative perimeter marker than an actual criminal deterrent. In today’s post, we take a look at the white picket fence and how it’s come to represent idealized American life.
White picket fences have been used to showcase class and style all the way back to the colonial days. Since whitewash was expensive and harder to maintain than plain wooden fences, it became a symbol of prosperity. Those who could own and maintain whitewashed wood either had time on their hands, or the money to buy someone else’s time. In that respect, not much has changed since the 1600s!
As television rose to prominence in the 50s and 60s, so did notions of what constituted an ideal home and lifestyle. Popular shows such as Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch showed elegant housewives serving up witty comebacks and piles of food to several cheerful, rambunctious children. The white picket fence enclosed this middle-class fairytale, as more and more families flocked from the cities to the suburbs. As writer Michael Dolan puts it in his article for Smithsonian Magazine, “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.”
All good things must come to an end, so did the popularity of the picket fense. As tensions of the Cold War rose, many homeowners began to install more secure options such as chain-link fences and spiked metal fences. The mood of the country was no longer that of post-war bliss, but pre-war apprehension and fear, and our fences changed to reflect that.
In the 1980s, the white picket fence was revived by New Urbanist developers attempting to recreate the idyllic suburbs of yesteryear. Today, white picket fences are a reminder of a bygone area of openness and trust. As one developer put it, “You can see through it; if you need to, 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 is, that hasn’t stopped the white picket fence from sliding into popular culture as a visual shorthand for the good life.
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