February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
The first settlers marked the borders of their lives with simple fences that grew ever more elaborate over the centuries
Good fences make good neighbors,” wrote Robert Frost, and he meant that fences did more than just enclose space; like his woods and roads, they bounded a social and psychological landscape. That fences also form a kind of historical document is suggested by the photographs on these pages.
The earliest urban examples quite naturally reflected the architectural styles of the homes they surrounded. Fashionable Georgian town houses of pre-Revolutionary days had elaborate wrought-iron fences and gates, the designs copied from European stylebooks and the ironwork itself often imported.
During the early nineteenth century the versatile craftsmen who functioned as architects were responsible for the overall design of a house, including the exterior trim. They topped their fence posts with carved urns, acorn clusters, or the pineapples that symbolized hospitality, and worked their pickets into pleasing patterns. In the 1820s, when domestic architecture turned to the simpler styles of the Greek Revival, fences followed suit. Straight white pickets echoed the lines of the large white columns fronting houses, and flat caps topped fence posts of simple squared timbers.
The Victorian age saw builders of houses and fences alike forsake the cool precision of classical design. Using scroll saws, artisans turned out highly imaginative fence posts that resembled miniature Gothic steeples or lush baskets of fruit. At the same time, innovations in cast iron resulted in the sinuous fences, railings, and brackets that still characterize the streetscapes of Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans.
Even though rural fences rarely matched those in town for beauty, they reveal much about the social arrangements of their time. Not only did fences physically define the settlers’ relationships with one another, they also marked the boundaries between civilization and wilderness.
Some of the first country fences were composed of sticks and stones—universally available materials. What today’s New Englander calls a stone wall is known in western New York and Pennsylvania as a stone fence; in northern New Jersey it is a stone row, while from West Virginia and into the South it is a rock fence. Most of these belong to the Northeastern states, though, where glacial debris was abundant; the sight of a stone wall, running through miles of New England’s heavily wooded hills, still remains strangely moving.
Virginia can claim the invention of the wooden rail fence, also known as the snake or worm fence. It survives today only as a handsome relic, preserved in small chunks in national parks and historic sites, or marking the driveways of elegant estates. Although now virtually extinct, until well after the Civil War this was considered the national fence, winding from Maine to Florida and as far west as the Mississippi. But despite its ubiquity, the rail fence was totally impractical: it took up too much room, it needed constant repair; and it consumed incredible quantities of wood. It gave way to a simpler version, the stake and rail fence, which required half as many rails and remains in use today.
The increasing cost and scarcity of wood impelled country folk to experiment with other fencing materials throughout the nineteenth century. Kansas farmers devised limestone fence posts. Before a freeze they’d pour water into holes drilled into rock formations. After the freeze, when the expanding ice split the rock, they’d chisel the resulting slabs into huge posts.
Hedges of Osage orange trees were common sights in the South, as were fences formed from thick-growing rosebushes. Less decorative fences were composed of tree stumps, pulled out of the ground and piled at the edge of a field. Mud fences were another improvised design; their aesthetic qualities are suggested by the expression “homely as a mud fence.”
Aesthetics aside, fences sparked antagonism, litigation, and even violence. The source of the trouble was often the question “Should crops or livestock be enclosed?” At first livestock enjoyed free range, and crops were fenced in. Later, with larger areas under cultivation, it became economical to fence in livestock. In some locales an official “fence-viewer” was empowered to administer oaths, examine witnesses, and award damages. This appointive office persisted in New England, mostly as the object of small-town wit, well into the 1940s.
The most famous fencing problems plagued the vast cattle kingdoms of the West. Here a man could own several hundred head of cattle without necessarily owning a single acre of land. His range rights extended, by tradition, to wherever he drove his herd. Joseph F. Glidden, a farmer from Illinois, changed all that in 1873 when he filed a patent for barbed wire. With cheap fencing material now available, it seemed that all of the Great Plains was open to cultivation. For homesteaders from nearby states and immigrants from abroad, this was a powerful attraction, though cattlemen fought to save their wav of life with bullets and with wire cutters.
Today the ubiquitous Cyclone chain-link fence has become the bland if efficient protector of property from coast to coast. No one is likely to celebrate the man who raises one of these modest barriers for his ability to make a beautiful fence, but, like its more glamorous predecessors, it does the job.