In early America, just as it had been for centuries, a fence was a structural barrier built of wood, or other materials, used to define, separate, & enclose areas like fields, pastures, yards, & gardens. Fences were mandated by the local & colonial governments in many of the British American colonies in the 17C & 18C.
Some of the earliest legislation in the colonies were directives for fencing in cultivated grounds & other spaces requiring protection from animal & human intruders. Land in early America was often refered to as "well-fenced," "under a good fence," & "within fence."
In 1623, the Virginia General Assembly declared "that every freeman shall fence in a quarter of an acre of ground before Whitsuntide next to make a garden."
An act of the Virginia General Assembly of 1705, intended to protect the gardens from stray pigs, horses & cattle, required the owners of every lot on Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg, to "inclose the said lots, or half acres, with a wall, pales, or post and rails, within six months after the building, which the law requires to be erected thereupon, shall be finished." The minimum height of the fence was set at 4 & one-half feet & but many were built higher.
In 1706, the act of the Virginia legislature authorizing the building of the Governor's Palace allocated 635 pounds for the construction of the garden with these instructions, "that a Court-Yard, of dimensions proportionable to the said house, be laid out, levelled and encompassed with a brick wall 4 feet high with the balustrades of wood thereupon, on the said land, and that a Garden of the length of 254 foot and the breadth of 144 foot from out to out, adjoining to the said house, to be laid out and levelled and enclosed with a brick wall, 4 feet high, with ballsutrades of wood upon the said wall, and that handsome gates be made to the said court-yard and garden."
By 1776, the wooden fences portions of the fences & walls around the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg needed attention. The Virginia Council Journal reported "Repairing Fodder Houses & paling round Garden." The "General appoints 25 men to repair fences of park."
Also receiving attention were the wooden fences around the pasture near the Governor's Palace in 1777, "Repairing the pailing and railing Round the Pasture." In order to complete the fence repair the workmen needed "60 foot of plank, 250 nails."
Many fences were built by slave & indentured servant laborers.
Gottlieb Mittelberger traveled to Pennsylvania from Germany in 1750, on a ship primarily filled with poorer immigrants who would become indentured servants upon arriving in Philadelphia.
Mittelberger observed the working conditions for German immigrant, indentured servants in Pennsylvania & wrote of them upon his return to his homeland. He noted, "Work mostly consists in cutting wood, felling oak-trees, rooting out, or as they say there, clearing large tracts of forest. Such forests, being cleared, are then laid out for fields and meadows. From the best hewn wood, fences are made around the new fields; for there all meadows, orchards and fruit-fields, are surrounded and fenced in with planks made of thickly-split wood, laid one above the other, as in zigzag lines, and within such enclosures, horses, cattle, and sheep, are permitted to graze."
1803 Charles Fraser (1782-1860). Utility fence depicted in A Bason & Storehouse Belonging to the Santee Canal.
Most gardeners could not afford brick walls & chose traditional paling---a picket fence--to protect their kitchen gardens. Occasionally Virginians denoted property lines with rail fences constructed in a zig-zag form. One traveler wrote in 1777, “the New Englanders have a saying, when a man is in his liquor, he is making Virginia fences.”
In Baltimore, Maryland in 1797, fenced gardens divided into quadrants but not terraced & with few other embellishments appeared at 13 Baltimore homes. At least one of these kitchen gardens had a stone wall surrounding its four beds.
Few paintings of the garden facades of Baltimore's country homes exist, but thanks to some inventive furniture makers, several chairback paintings of a variety of entrance facade fences remain.
Most of Baltimore's country seats had fences defining the entrance & garden areas of the property. Fences close to the house were usually painted white.
Some of the homes dotting the hills above Baltimore's harbor did not have fences on the entrance facade of the home, exhibiting a more natural grounds approach toward their landscaping. Fenced kitchen gardens usually were tucked away at the rear of the house.
French traveler Moreau St. Mery wrote of the country seats around New York City, when he was there in 1793. "I have spoken frequently of "pretty" country houses in this description; but when one hears this expression, he must not think that it has the same sense here as it has in Europe, particularly in France.
"In America, a very pretty country house corresponds only to a place moderately kept up on the outskirts of a large French city, and even then one will find in the former neither the good taste which embellishes the European house nor the comforts which make living in it a pleasure.
In America almost everything is sacrificed to the outside view. To accomplish this the fences of the houses are sometimes varied by these six combinations:
1. Planks are laid vertically and close together.
2. Planks are laid the same way, with a space between them.
3. Little narrow boards are laid across without joining.
4. Vertically placed laths are joined.
5. Vertically placed laths are not joined.
6. Laths are placed vertically, but passing alternately on the outside and the inside of cross members.
"Further elegance is obtained by using different shades of paint on lattices and partitions. Doors are handled in the same way."
New Yorker John Nicholson suggested a few practical, utilitarian fence designs in The Farmer's Assistant in 1820, "Log-fences are often made on new-cleared lands...White-pine log-fences are very good, and will last 20 years without any essential repairing. Clear white-pine timber may, however, be split into rails, which are very durable. All kinds of wood will last much longer in rails, when the bark is peeled off.
1780 Unknown Artist. The End of the Hunt.
"What are called worm-fences are made with most ease, but require more timber than some other kinds. If, therefore, timber be scarce, post-and-rail fences...ought to be prefered, where good durable posts can be had.
"If the posts are too small to have holes made through them, the rails may be flated at the ends and fastened to the posts with spikes.. or with wooden pins well secured.
1816. Charles Willson Peale. Belfield Farm in Pennsylvania.
Utility fences, when painted, were usually reddish in color. More formal fences were usually painted white.
"Post-and-rail fences...arc very good where the soil is dry, and the same may be observed of board fences; but, where the soil is wet, the posts will be thrown out by the frosts. In all cases, the posts ought to be set at least 2 feet in the ground.
"Red-cedar is best for posts. Locust, chesnut, butternut, and black-walnut are also good. Good oak will also last pretty well. Burning the ends of the posts which go into the ground, so as to make them black, will make them last longer...
"It is advisable to have a close high fence round your kitchen and fruit-gardens. This, in the first place, renders every thing within it secure from Pillagers; and also serves to keep out fowls. Another, benefit consists in keeping off the strong cold winds of the Spring, which are very injurious to the young plants, and also to the fruit, which is then about puting forth."