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Nostalgic About Picket Fences

Monday 29 October 2018 at 02:39 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 25, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            One of my favorite framed photos which I displayed on the console in my church office for many years found its way home with the rest of the church-office garniture when I retired.  Taking it out of a storage box and re-locating it on a table on the sun porch brought back memories of eating lunch at the Picket Fence Tea Room in East Bernard many years ago. 

            The photo of my oldest daughter rocking her first born in a rocking chair on the porch of the tea room was mounted in a wooden frame simulating a white picket fence.  The framed picture made me feel nostalgic not only about my oldest granddaughter’s babyhood days and the Picket Fence Tea Room, but also about “picket fences” in general.  Both my parents and my grandparents had white picket fences around their front yards, my parents’ fence painted white, my grandparents’ whitewashed.  The older pickets at my grandparents’ were more elaborately carved and more pointed than the newer ones my parents had erected.

            The picket fence has been the Middle-Class American look since the 1700’s, and was considered as American as apple pie.  The word “picket” is French, and the original French word, “piquer,” meant “to pierce,” thus the picket was used originally as a weapon (like a spear) in the 1600’s.  These wooden slats with points were first used by Americans to create fences around their gardens, though I doubt that pointed sticks ever kept any predators out of the garden.

            When I was growing up in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Dime Box, the picket fence signified the happy, peaceful life in the country or in the suburbs.  I guess that’s why those of us who are older are so sentimental about wooden fences, spaced apart, with points.  In today’s world, you are more likely to see a solid board fence (no spaces) with rounded or square tops, or chain-link fences.  This past May, The New York Post ran a story in the Real Estate Section, headlined, “America’s New Dream Home Doesn’t Have a White Picket Fence.”  Picket fences apparently are no longer on any American’s list of what a nice home should have.

            My maternal grandparents’ picket fence, erected at the turn of the Century, was whitewashed, whereas my parents’ fence was painted white.  White wash is a solution of dissolved lime and chalk which would whiten the surface of the wood but not coat it like paint does, and this was the standard method of coloring a fence white in the 19th and very early 20th Century. 

            In fact, in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, the famous fence which Tom tricked his friends into working on was whitewashed rather than painted.  Twain said Tom had a “bucket of whitewash and a long handle brush,” which he was supposed to use on the fence as punishment for skipping school.  Although many of us may picture a picket fence in our mind’s eye, Twain describes the fence as a 9-foot high board fence, which means there were no gaps between the boards. A picket fence would have been a lot easier to do! 

            There are still many small towns in Texas with many homes built in the early and mid-1900’s that sport white picket fences framing their front, and, in some cases, back yards.  So, if you are often nostalgic like me, you can take a Sunday drive through those towns and almost revisit the good old days.  However, there is a trend which I am seeing among the younger adults these days to want vintage things, including picket fences, --  that’s why collectible and antique places are so popular these days.  If the trend continues, who knows we may return to erecting vintage wooden fences which we will have to whitewash regularly.

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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