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Barbed Wire

Updated on February 27, 2010
Photo by Gabika
Photo by Gabika

The invention of wire fencing set with barbs at regular intervals was an important accessory to the westward movement in the United States in the late 19th century. Before barbed wire was widely available, farmers lacked protection against untamed cattle, and ranchers were unable to safeguard property improvements or improved cattle breeds. Standard fencing materials of wood and stone were scarce on open prairies and plains. Then, in 1873, an Illinois farmer, Joseph Farwell Glidden, applied for a patent on a home-made barbed-wire fencing material that was practical and effective. This first commercially successful barbed-wire fencing became the basis of a flourishing new industry.

In the West, use of "bob wire" or the "devil's rope", as barbed wire was called, caused the natural hostility between cattlemen and farm settlers to flare into "fence wars," while in the East manufacturers became involved in litigation for control of various patents. Eventually, however, barbed wire was accepted as the answer to one of the most pressing needs of the times. It provided the protective boundaries without which the frontiers of settlement could not continue to advance.

Between 1873 and the end of the 19th century, aproximately 400 types of barbed wire were devised. Although many were successful, a few types dominated the industry until modern materials brought about changes both in domestic fencing and in wire used during the two world wars. In some regions today, smooth single-strand wire and woven-wire fences have replaced barbed wire; and in certain areas where livestock is not involved, fencing has been removed entirely.


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