top of page

We Love History!

Here's a little history of barb wire for our fellow history buffs.

Barbed wire, also known as barb wire, occasionally corrupted as bobbed wire, or bob wore, is a type of steel fencing wire constructed with sharp edges or points arrainged at intervals along the strands.

It is used to construct inexpensive fences and is used atop walls surrounding secured property. Barbed wire fencing requires only fence posts, wire, and fixing devices such as staples.

A person or animal trying to pass or go over barbed wire will suffer discomfort and possibly injury. 

​The first patent in the United States for barbed wire was issued in 1867
to Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio, who is regarded as the inventor.

Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois,

received a patent for the modern invention in 1874

after he made his own modifications to previous versions.


Barbed wire was the first wire technology capable of restraining cattle. When wire fences became widely available in the United States in the late19th century, it became more affordable to fence much larger areas than before, and intensive animal husbandry was made practical on a much larger scale.

​Fencing consisting of flat and thin wire was first proposed in France, by Leonce Eugene Grassin-Baledans in 1860. His design consisted of bristling points, creating a fence that was painful to cross. In April 1865 Louis François Janin proposed a double wire with diamond-shaped metal barbs; Francois was granted a patent. Michael Kelly from New York had a similar idea and proposed that the fencing should be used specifically for deterring animals.

​More patents followed, and in 1867 alone there were six patents issued for barbed wire. Only two of them addressed livestock deterrence, one of which was from American Lucien B. Smith of Ohio. Before 1870, westward movement in the United States was largely across the plains with little or no settlement occurring. After the American Civil War, the plains were extensively settled, consolidating America's dominance over them.

​Ranchers moved out on the plains and needed to fence their land in against encroaching farmers and other ranchers. The railroads throughout the growing West needed to keep livestock off their tracks, and farmers needed to keep stray cattle from trampling their crops. Traditional fence materials used in the Eastern U.S., like wood and stone, were expensive to use in the large open spaces of the plains, and hedging was not reliable in the rocky, clay based and rain-starved dusty soils. A cost-effective alternative was needed to make cattle operations profitable.

​The "Big Four" in barbed wire were Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haish, Charles Francis Washburn, and Isaac L. Ellwood. Glidden, a farmer in 1873 and the first of the "Big Four," is often credited for designing a successful sturdy barbed wire product, but he let others popularize it for him. Glidden's idea came from a display at a fair in DeKalb, Illinois in 1873, by Henry B. Rose. Rose had patented "The Wooden Strip with Metallic Points" in May 1873.

This was simply a wooden block with wire protrusions designed to keep cows from breaching the fence. That day, Glidden was accompanied by two other men, Isaac L. Ellwood, a hardware dealer and Jacob Haish, a lumber merchant. Like Glidden, they both wanted to create a more durable wire fence with fixed barbs. Glidden experimented with a grindstone to twist two wires together to hold the barbs on the wire in place. The barbs were created from experiments with a coffee mill from his home.

Later Glidden was joined by Ellwood who knew his design could not compete with Glidden's for which he applied for a patent in October 1873. Meanwhile, Haish, who had already secured several patents for barbed wire design, applied for a patent on his third type of wire, the S barb, and accused Glidden of interference, deferring Glidden's approval for his patented wire, nicknamed "The Winner," until November 24, 1874.

Barbed wire production greatly increased with Glidden and Ellwood's establishment of the Barb Fence Company in DeKalb following the success of "The Winner". The company's success attracted the attention of Charles Francis Washburn, Vice President of Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Company, an important producer of plain wire in the Eastern U.S. Washburn visited De Kalb and convinced Glidden to sell his stake in the Barb Wire Fence Company, while Ellwood stayed in DeKalb and renamed the company I.L Ellwood & Company of DeKalb.

In the late 1870s, John Warne Gates of Illinois began to promote barbed wire, now a proven product, in the lucrative markets of Texas. At first, Texans were hesitant, as they feared that cattle might be harmed, or that the North was somehow trying to make profits from the South. There was also conflict between the farmers who wanted fencing and the ranchers who were losing the open range.

Demonstrations by Gates in San Antonio in 1876 showed that the wire could keep cattle contained, and sales then increased dramatically. Gates eventually parted company with Ellwood and became a barbed wire baron in his own right. Throughout the height of barbed wire sales in the late 19th century, Washburn, Ellwood, Gates, and Haish competed with one another, but Ellwood and Gates eventually joined forces again to create the American Steel and Wire Company, later acquired by The U.S. Steel Corporation.


Between 1873 and 1899 there were as many as 150 companies manufacturing barbed wire to cash in on the demand in the West.

Barbed wire played an important role in the protection of range rights in the Western U.S. Although some ranchers put notices in newspapers claiming land areas and joined stock growers associations to help enforce their claims, livestock continued to cross range boundaries. Fences of smooth wire did not hold stock well, and hedges were difficult to grow and maintain. Barbed wire's introduction in the West in the 1870s dramatically reduced the cost of enclosing land.

Barbed wire is often cited by historians

as the invention that truly tamed the West.

Herding large numbers of cattle on open terrain required significant manpower just to catch strays, but with an inexpensive method to divide, sub-divide and allocate parcels of land to control the movement of cattle, the need for a vast labor force became unnecessary. By the beginning of the 20th century the need for significant numbers of cowboys was not necessary.

The most important and most time-consuming part of a barbed wire fence is constructing the corner post and the bracing assembly.

A barbed wire fence is under tremendous tension, often up to half a ton, and so the corner post's sole function is to resist the tension of the fence spans connected to it. The bracing keeps the corner post vertical and prevents slack from developing in the fence.

Barbed wire fences remain the standard fencing technology for enclosing cattle in most regions of the United States, but not all countries. The wire is aligned under tension between heavy, braced, fence posts (strainer posts) and then held at the correct height by being attached to wooden or steel fence posts, and/or with battens in between.

Barbed wire for agricultural fencing is typically available in two varieties:

Soft or mild-steel wire and High-tensile.

Both types are galvanized for longevity.

  • High-tensile wire:

Is made with thinner but higher-strength steel. Its greater strength makes fences longer lasting because it resists stretching and loosening better, coping with expansion and contraction caused by heat and animal pressure by stretching and relaxing within wider elastic limits. It also supports longer spans, but because of its elastic (springy) nature, it is harder to handle and somewhat dangerous for inexperienced fencers.

  • Soft wire (mild -steel):

Is much easier to work but is less durable and only suitable for short spans such as repairs and gates, where it is less likely to tangle.

1874 Glidden Winner barbed wire
Cow near barbed wire
bottom of page