On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the January Artifact of the Month is a collection of barbed wire donated in 1980 by Dr. C. Orville Elliott, a professor at Western Illinois University. Consisting of over 248 types and 433 variations of barbed wire, Elliott‘s extensive collection of barbed wire was built over a period of 13 years.

The collection is displayed on a number of two feet by two feet panels covered with gold burlap with rope edging. Each barbed wire strand is meticulously attached and is identified on the back of the board.   There are approximately 11 pieces of wire on each of the 25 boards.  Most people do not realized that there are hundreds of types of barbed wire. If you did not know anything about barbed wire, you would think that there was just one type but this display graphically illustrates the almost mind-boggling and amazing varieties of barbed wire.

It is thanks to a Boy Scout that the museum has such a finely crafted barbed wire display.  Back in 1981, Craig Conrad was a 14-year-old freshman at Macomb High School and a Boy Scout in Troop 309.  Conrad needed to work on a big service project to become an Eagle Scout and he decided to work on the barbed wire display. Conrad came up with the design on how to display the wires.  By the summer of 1981, he had mounted over 270 varieties of the barbed wire collection for his Eagle Scout project.

Conrad eventually involved 11 Boy Scouts from Troop 309 in helping with the barbed wire display project.  Conrad himself spent over 125 hours on the project and he estimated that other troop members gave an additional 50 hours to the project.   Now 31 years later, Conrad’s Eagle Scout project still benefits the museum by displaying the barbed wire in a neat and easy-to-look at format.

What exactly is barbed wire?  Barbed wire is a fencing material consisting of a metal cable with regularly spaced sharp projections. The cable usually consists of two wires twisted around each other to add strength and to allow the cable to expand and contract with temperature changes without breaking. The sharp points, called barbs, usually consist of short pieces of wire twisted around one or both of the cable wires.  Most barbed wire is made of steel.

Fences have been around since people began living in settlements and needed to keep things in or keep things out.  Fences have been made from many types of material.  Before the introduction of barbed wire, early American farmers tried different types of materials to make fences: rocks, logs, plants, or simple smooth wire fences. Eventually most fences were replaced by barbed wire and there are a number of reasons why barbed wire became so prevalent:

  • barbed wire was cheap to manufacture and affordable to buy
  • it was easy and quick to erect  and maintain even by an unskilled person
  • it did not require much wood, which was in short supply on the plains of the American west; it requires only fence posts, wire and fixing devices, such as staples
  • It was the first wire technology capable of restraining cattle, making it highly effective in controlling livestock.

Because barbed wire could contain cattle and it was cheap and widely available, it made it affordable to fence areas much larger than had ever been fenced before.  Barbed wire made possible the huge cattle ranches of the American west.

Although it is a deceptively simple invention, barbed wire changed the American landscape forever.  The wide open spaces of the west were more open before the invention of barbed wire.  Some historians refer to barbed wire as “the wire that won the west,” and that it literally changed the face and economy of America’s Great Plains.

Metal was not used for fencing until steel wire became easily available in the 19th century.  By 1870, improvements in steelmaking made it possible to produce large amounts of steel wire and barbed wire for the first time.  Joseph Farwell Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, patented the first commercially successful barbed wire in 1874. Glidden is considered the “inventor” of barbed wire. There were many barbed wire manufacturing plants in Illinois, Roseville and Bushnell each had barbed wire making plants.

Early producers of barbed wire were effusive in their advertising, according to themBarbed wire was the finest fence in the world! – Light as air! -Stronger than whiskey! – Cheaper than dirt! – All steel and miles long! – Lasts twice as long as any other kind of fence! – Sparks do not set it on fire! and Floods do not sweep it away!

The use of barbed wire increased tremendously in the 1870s and 1880s. During this time, the market for wire was driven by the new demand for fencing as the west was becoming more settled. Railroads needed to secure their newly laid right-of-ways, while ranchers were compelled to keep their livestock within property lines rather than letting them graze on the open range, which was increasingly being converted to farmland.

As barbed wire fences spread throughout the West, conflicts between ranchers who wanted unfenced pastures (don’t fence me in) and farmers who wanted fenced croplands escalated into fence-cutting and violent range wars. Ranchers referred to barbed wire as “the devil’s rope.”  Eventually the conflict subsided when it became clear that barbed wire was becoming necessary as humans and cattle increased in number.

Currently, although barbed wire is often used for security, agriculture still accounts for 90% of its use.  Even though the classic barbed wire fence is still commonly used on farms, more advanced products such as woven wire fences (similar to chicken wire, with crossing horizontal and vertical wires) and electric fences are slowly replacing it. For military and security use, barbed wire may become obsolete with the recent development of barbed tape, a flat, thin strip of metal, which has been cut to produce clusters of sharp points. Perhaps someday barbed wire will exist only in museums and private collections.

The barbed wire collection will be on display at the museum from January 2-28, 2013.

From an essay by Heather Munro.