Island Classic: The Picket Fence

Something there may be that doesn’t love a wall, according to Robert Frost, but who can resist a white picket fence?

No one in Edgartown, it would seem.

Dating back to the colonial period, this classic decorative fencing style has been popular in the United States for centuries. The first formal fences were heavily influenced by European settlers, fashioned from local materials, and designed to withstand the harsh conditions of the new frontier.
As early as the late 1700s, picket fences spread from agricultural to residential realms, and could be found up and down the Atlantic seaboard, where the wealthy merchant classes employed skilled carpenters to create impressive, handcrafted wooden borders.

The picket fence, as seen today on nearly every front lawn in Edgartown’s
Historic District, is distinguished by a series of vertical slats, called pickets, separated by larger, often ornamental posts. The pickets themselves – tapered or pointed, capped or railed – are said to have been modeled after medieval palings, and the simple, utilitarian design is as timeless as it is functional. One particular style, which features a flat railing, is so ubiquitous to the town that it’s known here and abroad as the “Edgartown fence.” A number of off-Island and online fence retailers stock the style, meaning you don’t need to actually be on Island to get that down-Island look.

The picket fence boasts an honest, inviting design, with open slats that allow the viewer to easily peer within. Symbolically, however, white picket fences have come to represent an upper-middle-class lifestyle that conceals more than it reveals. Movies like Pleasantville and American Beauty aim to go beyond the fences, bringing us through these picturesque facades and into less-than-idyllic portraits of suburban family life.

Perhaps the most famous of all fences belongs to Mark Twain and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While not explicitly made of pickets, Tom’s fence is white – or will be, once he’s finished tricking a group of neighborhood boys into painting it for him. For Tom, the fence isn’t so much about aesthetics or property lines, but the meaninglessness of the work involved in its tedious upkeep.

“Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again...”

With so much maintenance (and soul-searching) required, why did the picket fence become the fence of Edgartown? By the mid 1800s, picket fences were popping up on nearly every corner. A 1937 Vineyard Gazette article suggests that the picket preference was perhaps a symbol of status. “The presence of a fence indicated ownership and all the sanctity that goes with the home and castle of old English tradition, and perhaps the painted fence of pickets or palings enhances that impression far more than any other form of fence that man has ever constructed.”