The history of barbed wire dates back to 1868 with Michael Kelly and patents had been awarded through 1874. However, according to C. Moore "Barbed Wire: It Isn't Just For Fences" (2003) there are more than 570 patented wires. The U.S. patent office recognized Michael Kelly’s patent in November of 1868. Kelly took two wires and twisted them together, resulting in a place for the barbs. Joseph Glidden received his patent in November of 1874 for his type of barbed wire. Glidden improved on Kelly’s design by locking the barb in place rather than hanging loosely. Glidden also invented the machinery to mass produce this type of wire.
Barbed wire played a large role in the Midwest. It was cheap to produce, easy to put up and needed little maintenance. Wooden fences were too costly, because of the lack of lumber in the open plains. Barbed wire was the solution to many of the farmers’ problems as barbed wire fences were much more cost effective.
According to McCallum (1965) "The Wire that Fenced the West," the farmers and the cowmen had two different opinions about fences. The cowmen were for the unwritten Law of the Open Range, which was the free access to grass and water. The farmers had to put up fences so the cattle would not ruin and trample their crops. This difference in opinion about the barbed wire fencing resulted in range wars between the two groups. Since watering holes were blocked, the cattlemen cut the fences, and in some cases lives were lost. According to "Fencing the Great Plains: the History of Barbed Wire," (2011) homesteaders used barbed wire to mark their boundaries.
Today, barbed wire is still prevalent in our lives, we can see it holding prisoners, keeping unwanted intruders away, or protecting valuables. According to M. Bellis "History of Barbed Wire or the Thorny Fence," Barbed wire has been used in multiple wars since its invention. Miles of barbed wire were strung in World War I. British military manuals which date back to 1888 encouraged the use of barbed wire. Today, barbed wire is used in prisons, construction sites, and storage sites. To protect supplies barbed wire has been put up around buildings.
Barbed wire has been used in many ways; it has developed from a cattle fence into a protection device. Barbed wire helped farmers and homesteaders in numerous ways, protecting crops and establishing boundaries. From containing cattle to being used as a war mechanism barbed wire has changed over the course of its history.
I hope you enjoyed learning more about fencing and barbed wire. I have shared with you the history of barbed wire, the role it played in the 1900’s, and the evolution of barbed wire. We still use barbed wire 150 years after its invention, whether it is to confine cattle, or as a military device, barbed wire has come a long way. Fences and barbed wire gave the Midwest boundaries and established property lines. Yes, the cattle still roam free, just inside a fence.