Between Fences – The History and Meaning of Fences (Part 1)

The Smithsonian Institute has stated that “fences are icons of the American landscape. They can be used to create a welcoming picture of home or a wall of privacy and security. Fences have pitted rancher against rancher in the battle for scarce resources; back fences serve as meeting places where neighbors share recipes, local gossip or a friendly joke. Americans live between fences.”

Did you know? There was an exhibition from Museum on Main Street, a partnership of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Federation of State Humanities Councils titled, “Between Fences,”, which examined the history and meaning of fences in America. Included in the exhibition were tools, photographs, journals, postcards and posters relating to the history of fences. Fences are an integral part of the fabric of the communities in the United States; so too is their rich history.

Fences are as complex as they are simple. Consider some of the more popular types—a rusted barbed-wire fence; a new, perfectly aligned white-picket fence; or a tall chain-link fence—each potentially conveys a message about the owners of the fence, their lives, and the nature of their relations with their neighbors.

“Between Fences” focused on a range of fence materials and how they have varied over time and by region. Colonial America’s first fences were made of wood or stone. But as settlement moved westward, forests dwindled. Farmers who needed to protect their crops from free-ranging cattle came to rely on the steel-wire industry to create strong, inexpensive fence material. Using fences to establish boundaries led to the fence wars of the late 19th century. These conflicts turned neighbor against neighbor, sometimes with deadly consequences. More than two centuries later, the question is posed: What is the intent of fences?

The exhibition encouraged visitors to embrace the importance of a crucial aspect of our personal and national heritage. As visitors explored the exhibition, encountering fences and gateways, they would get a sense of the unspoken communication and interaction that fences play in our lives. Do fences contain or exclude? When does a privacy fence become a spite fence? Do gated communities give the residents a special bond or exclude outsiders? Further, visitors were asked to consider how and why we build fences, and how they reflect who we are as individuals, communities and a nation.

Just looking at the diversity of fences speaks to the American culture. The worm fence, one of the most widely built, garnered the attention of many 18th- and 19th-century visitors to the United States. Its unique design facilitated international understanding of the American culture.

The exhibition was part of Museum on Main Street, which serves museums, libraries and historical societies in rural America. The SITES-Federation of State Humanities Councils partnership, which began in 1994, was formed as a creative response to the challenge faced by rural museums to enhance their own cultural legacies. Major funding for Museum on Main Street is provided by the U.S. Congress.

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