Landscapes, Streetscapes, Parks & Garden Fixtures

Fencing Through the Years

In the past, good, neighborly fences were usually made of wood or iron.

By Gordon H. Bock

Though fences may appear to be elementary constructions because they hold up only themselves, in fact they require considerable investments of material and skill to erect – all the more so if they are to be in keeping with history. Various forms of wood and iron are the stuff used to make most fences of the past, to the point that you can often match a fence to an era by its make-up, as this quick historical review shows.

This fence was fabricated by Mueller Ornamental with all solid bars, cast-iron points and hand-forged scrolls on the gate arch. Photo: courtesy of Mueller Ornamental Ironworks

Ever the dominant fencing material, the forms and details of wood fences have shifted along with the architectural fashions of the houses they surround. The earliest fences in America were first logs set on end in the earth in stockades, then later split into rails and laid in horizontal zig-zags to make the iconic worm fences of Abraham Lincoln and other pioneer lore. In frontier or agricultural environments, these fences were erected to exclude wild animals and livestock from farmland or house yards. However, as settlements became more established and urban, fence function shifted to enclosing animals – primarily dogs and chickens – as well as delineating urban property lines.

In such settings, the paling – a flat wood strip or round stake used for centuries in Europe – morphed into the picket that when shaped at the top and attached to two horizontal rails, became the ubiquitous, prosaic fence of North America. In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when imposing houses were built in the Georgian and Federal styles, pickets followed suit with Classical symmetry and detailing, as well as white and ocher paint schemes, emulating the house. Pickets might be capped with a top rail, and supporting posts were often decorated with chamfers or finials. For high-style houses, gate posts were sometimes built with molded panels, and then surmounted with symbolic carvings such as urns, fruit or, in the Federal period, eagles.

This early wood fence was constructed at the 19th-century Coburn Tyler House in Rockport, ME. Photo: Library of Congress/Historic American Buildings Survey

Constructed in Mobile, AL, this historic wrought-iron fence features cast-iron ornaments. Photo: Library of Congress/Historic American Buildings Survey

In the 1840s, as the architecture of young America shifted gears away from Classical styles like the Georgian and Greek Revival and into the romantic modes of the mid-19th century, wood fences were reinvented in not only detailing but concept. While the affluent owner of a Gothic Revival house might have his fence pick up Gothic motifs, such as pickets with pointed-arch tops or posts carved with trefoils, others followed the ideas of horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing, America's first architectural tastemaker. In the 1850s, Downing (who hated landscapes dotted with stark white Greek Revival houses) wrote that fences were little more than necessary evils. In his view, the best was a slight paling fence painted dark green so it would be as inconspicuous as possible. Not surprisingly, this earth-borne view was soon taken to its logical limit in rustic wood fences built out of natural, unprocessed logs and limbs. Architects of the Romantic Movement favored a dreamy, anti-Classical ethos called the picturesque, and what could be more picturesque than a fence and garden gate – or for that matter a garden house, pergola or any landscape structure – built right from trees, the more twisted and knobby the better?

By the Victorian era, the timeless wood-picket fence still fit the bill for most homeowners. Critics such as Frank Scott, a Downing acolyte, advocated fences that were more open on their upper half by alternating full-height pickets with those that only rise to a middle rail. After the turn of the 20th century, the practical, animal-control applications of fences all but disappeared, so designers of the Arts and Crafts era tended to view fences mainly as landscape features and, in the vein of Downing, advocated naturalistic, minimalist wood fences if at all. At the same time, the architectural ideas of the 18th century were being reincarnated in the Colonial Revival movement, bringing with them a renewed interest in the Classical wood fence, replete with pineapple gatepost finials.

This fence and gate were created by Fine Architectural Metalsmiths. Photo: courtesy of Fine Architectural Metalsmiths

This forged corner detail in a seaside railing fabricated by Fine Architectural Metalsmiths features simple collared arches and a forged bottom detail. Photo: courtesy of Fine Architectural Metalsmiths

Wrought Iron
Wood may be plentiful but it is perishable, and the more durable fence has always been made from ironwork, a tradition that has its roots in Europe but begins in America with the first domestic forge: the Saugus Ironworks in Massachusetts, established in 1644. An ancient material (and different in composition today), wrought iron is iron ore refined with a low carbon content (no more than .35 percent). Compared to the higher carbon content of cast iron and steel, wrought iron is close to pure iron, making it very malleable and readily formed into characteristic scrolls, twists and leaves. It is also easy to weld and less susceptible to rust than other ferrous metals.

"Originally, wrought iron was a specific carbon content composition with specific relative elasticity," says Don Quick of Architectural Iron Company in Milford, PA. "Today what is commonly called wrought iron is mild steel bars that are heated, ‘hammered' and bent into shapes (frequently by machines) to mass produce scrolls, twisted bars and the like."

Small forges like Saugus Iron Works typically produced functional products such as andirons and hardware (hinges, locks, nails), but by the 18th century fencing was more common in cities such as Charleston, SC, which produced acclaimed fences and railings by three German smiths (Lusti, Christopher and Ortmann). Though much of New Orleans' illustrious ironwork is actually cast iron, earlier wrought-iron fences and railings show a French and Spanish influence, and there are indications that some pieces may have been imported from Spain.

At the turn of the 20th century, when steel had eclipsed iron as the dominant architectural metal, wrought iron enjoyed a rebirth in unmatched popularity and creativity. The revival was propelled not only by the rise of the Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts movements, but also by the ranks of Classically trained and Beaux Arts-influenced architects at work in the day. By happy coincidence, wrought-iron craftsmen of the Revival had more sophisticated tools and aids at their disposal than early ironworkers, allowing them to make more complex designs. The period was also blessed with one of the visionary masters of the craft: Samuel Yellin. Born and trained in Poland, Yellin brought European traditions and unmatched skill and genius to his Philadelphia shop, where he and his staff of some 200 artisans turned out some of the finest ironwork ever produced in America.

This cast-iron fence was erected at the Starbuck House in Nantucket, MA. Photo: Library of Congress/Historic American Buildings Survey

Cast Iron
When cast iron started to come into its own as a building material in the 1840s, the design of fencing shifted from the creativity of wrought-iron artisan and the inherent characteristics of the metal itself to the mass production of identical pieces based upon design sources beyond the fence. While cast iron had been used for centuries, it was not available in sufficient or economical quantities to be practical as a building material until the invention of the hot blast furnace in England 1824, and the switch from charcoal to coke and coal as a forge fuel. By the 1840s, cast iron was rapidly growing in importance in America. In contrast to wrought iron, cast iron could not be hammered, twisted or otherwise fashioned by an artisan; plus, though it was good in compression, to have any strength individual pieces had to be beefy and therefore quite heavy. However, what made cast iron a revolutionary building material was the way it enabled products to be cast, and therefore mass produced rapidly and economically in identical forms and unlimited numbers.

At first, cast-iron fence patterns attempted to imitate wrought-iron designs and motifs, such as S-scrolls and bands, but the material soon developed its own design idioms. While cast iron could imitate the lithe, muscular forms of wrought iron, it could also mimic the surface decorations and general shapes and outlines of other decorative items, from houses to statuary to furniture, and that it did. Because it was mass producible, cast iron made possible the order-by-catalog products of famous foundries, such as the Wood & Perot Iron Foundry of Philadelphia, which shipped cast-iron fencing and railings all over the country, bringing affordable fencing to wide ranges of the population. According to Rhoda Mack of Fine Architectural Metalsmiths of Chester, NY, while the large catalog foundries shipped their products great distances, they weren't the only designs available. "Once there were also many regional styles and producers," she says, "but, unfortunately, many of these patterns and molds have been lost, so many of the remaining historic patterns for cast ironwork have almost become generic."

Designers soon realized that cast iron's added value was in carrying surface detail, which unleashed a heretofore unheard of vogue for architectural fencing. For example, a Greek Revival building could now sport a fence or window grilles based on the Greek key motif and adorned perhaps with durable cast-iron anthemia or acroterion. For that matter, the cast-iron fence of a Gothic Revival house or churchyard might be filled with quatrefoils, pointed arches and other Gothic motifs and symbols. Even an Egyptian Revival building, such as the 1845 Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, could be set off with an appropriate cast-iron fence supported by posts cast as — what else? — stylized mummies.

Cast-iron molds were not limited to time-tested designs either, but made possible highly expressive patterns if the customer so desired. Perhaps the most famous is the iconic cornstalk fence, a pattern custom cast in 1855 by Wood and Perot for New Orleans native Dr. Joseph Biamenti, who, according to lore, wished to console his homesick Iowa bride. The fence is a favorite tourist attraction at two known New Orleans houses, and also reputed to be installed in the Midwest.

Architectural Iron Company replicated this cast-iron fence for the Old Stone Church in East Haven, CT. Photo: courtesy of Architectural Iron Company

Architectural Iron Company removed, restored and replicated approximately 800 ft. of this massive cast-iron fence surrounding Mobile Cathedral in Mobile, AL. Photo: courtesy of Architectural Iron Company

Wire Fences
Iron continued to be the most durable, as well as high-end, fence material throughout the 19th century, but by the early Industrial Revolution, it took a new, more versatile and affordable form still common today: the wire fence. One of the earliest wire fence types was the hurdle fence, which originated in England in the 1830s and eventually became commercially popular in North America in the 1840s. Fashioned from heavy wire – 1/8 to 3/8 in. in diameter – drawn from wrought iron, the Hurdle fence was a purely functional simple diaper or diamond matrix of diagonal wires either woven or cold-bent around a jig, then set into framed panels seven to 10 ft. long. Panels were then set between decorative cast-iron posts. Prosaic as it was compared to the more decorative fences to come, the hurdle fence remained popular into the 1880s because it bridged the era of decorative wire fences and a revival of traditional wrought-iron fences later in the century.

Iron wire fencing really found its stride in the mid- to late-19th century as a material that was novel and fashionable, yet practical. Landscape critics hailed it for its transparency, while architects and building owners loved its elasticity – and with a strength close to cast- or wrought-iron fences. To have more visual appeal than the hurdle fence, manufacturers crimped the iron wires into decorative, geometrical patterns not unlike those seen in tile work. By the 1850s though, they hit upon the idea of combining wire with wrought and cast iron to produce what was called a composite fence. Here, the decorative weave of a wire fence was enhanced by casting ornaments along the top rail or at strategic places where wires intersected. Composite fences were regularly used to set off featured spaces such as private yards, cemeteries and churchyards, and being relatively light and flexible they were particularly well suited to galleries and balconies – both inside as well as outside buildings – as the historic districts of cities like Savannah and New Orleans still show. By the late-19th century, the fashion for elaborate weaves began to wane, but more prosaic combinations of heavy wire, bars and castings remained popular, especially in the form of the ubiquitous hairpin fence, still a favorite today. "We're currently extending a fence at the state capitol in Springfield that incorporates castings," says Lynn Parquette of Mueller Ornamental Ironworks in Elk Grove, IL.

Steel Fences
Advances in mass producing steel at the end of the 19th century began to displace wrought and cast iron for fence-making, and by 1890 they ushered in a new ilk of composite fence made of steel and malleable iron. Using lighter-gauge wire that was zinc-galvanized for protection, this fencing could be machine woven for rapid production and then shipped in rolls for installation on posts. Such fencing – the precursors to the chain-link fence so ubiquitous today – were widely marketed by mail-order giants Sears Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward and used on farms and households alike. The popularity of metal fencing, from iron to woven wire, continued apace well into the 20th century, until two world wars took their toll. World War I saw many old cast and iron-wire fences torn up and melted down in scrap drives – the historic fence surrounding Boston Public Garden being a famous example. During World War II, all fence production was shifted to strictly utilitarian types, spelling the end of decorative designs for most major manufacturers.

Gordon H. Bock is a writer, architectural historian, technical consultant, lecturer and co-author of the book The Vintage House (