From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages. The White Picket Fence was broadcast on the 7th May 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
A white picket fence might seem as genteel as tea at the Ritz but actually it’s a fiendish thing loaded with meaning, the Jekyll and Hyde of the streetscape. You only have to look back at the genesis of its name – from the French piquet, meaning the pointed stakes that would be erected around archers back in the middle ages to protect them as they went about their business of killing people. The plain wooden fence has been around for much longer, of course, but who decided to make something prettier? There’s a fence made of pointed pickets in Botticelli’s painting of The Agony in the Garden of 1498 but it’s a fairly loose arrangement, notable only because it’s white. In America, Jefferson’s lovely house at Monticello of the 1770s had wooden palings around the vegetable garden to keep out wild animals but they’re plain and unpainted. And yet some fifty years later, as America’s towns were established, from the Deep South up to New England, the white picket fence had become an almost ubiquitous finishing touch. It harmonized with the wooden character of the houses themselves but it also defined a clear boundary, dividing public from private in a less than subtle way. The pickets themselves came in all manner of styles, from a rounded or pointed top to something more flamboyant, like a three-leaved trefoil or even perforated with circles. Anything was possible, giving the property a certain refinement, like adding a lace collar to a plain blouse. They became the symbol for middle class comfort and success, an encapsulation of the American Dream. Painted to make the wood last longer, the image of the white picket fence became burned into the collective unconscious as a symbol of niceness.
The fashion was popular abroad, too, especially in England where white fences perfectly matched the white woodwork of the Queen Anne style of buildings, typified by Norman Shaw’s Bedford Park near Chiswick, again a symbol of an idealised middle class life. This influenced the emerging Federation style of architecture in Australia and it became common to find painted picket fencing adopted when plain wood or woven wire was thought too basic.
There were attempts to be rid of these domestic boundaries in the early twentieth century, especially in America with unfenced front yards in suburbs like Oak Park in Chicago, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie houses celebrating the horizontal line, giving a park-like openness to a street. The unfenced front garden became truly popular in the post-war period, in Australia, too, where it symbolised a relaxed attitude and a sense of safety with no need to define boundaries. And yet woe betide anyone who didn’t mow their lawn as everyone else did. The white picket fence was again in fashion with the New Urbanist movement later in the century, with the Truman Show setting of utopian communities in Florida and elsewhere using the white picket fence to compliment the quaint clapboard villas, evoking, as one historian put it, a time that never actually existed. That phoney reality was exploited in television and films where white picket fences belie the horrors that go on beyond them. Because there’s always a passive aggressive edge to the white picket fence. Just like those very first piquets in France, they are always there to protect and to keep out invaders, whether actual intruders or the imagined dangers of liberal thinking around gender, politics or religion. The white picket fence might be a cliché of the perfect life but it can also be a sign that the American Dream, and those like it, can sometimes be the stuff of nightmares.