Barbed Wire

Reviel Netz

Mark out, on the two-dimensional surface of the earth, lines across which no movement is allowed and you have one of the key themes of history. Draw a closed line preventing movement from outside to inside the line, and you define landed property. Draw the same line preventing movement from inside the line to outside, and you define compulsory confinement. Draw an open line preventing movement in either direction and you define a border. Topological structures of this kind range from absolute barriers that make movement across them physically impossible, through more subtle ones whose function is to make movement inconvenient and therefore undesirable, to wholly symbolic definitions of limits, respected only because that’s how a society or an international consensus works. Even a symbolic definition of space, however, depends on the possibility of force being used in defence of spatial bounds, if only as a last resort. The role of force in the history of the prevention of movement – force in its most literal sense, of physical pressure applied to bodies – means that such a history must be one of violence and the infliction of pain.


In the 1870s, with the extermination of the buffalo and the Amerindian way of life, a new order emerged on the plains of the American West. At first glance, you might think that this was simply a matter of a change of species and ethnicity. Instead of herds of wild buffalo, semi-feral Texas longhorn cows now roamed the plains – descendants of the cows originally brought to America by the Spanish colonisers and allowed to run wild. Remarkably self-sufficient, the longhorn cow was not wholly unlike the buffalo it replaced.

The Amerindians for their part were replaced by Anglo-Americans and Hispanics, who moved around on horseback, herding the cows together and driving them east to be killed. As before, grass provided the primary source of energy; it was consumed by vast numbers of large quadrupeds – more than 11 million of them by 1880. These animals roamed freely, though under the supervision of small bands of cowhands. Some customs did change, however. The cows were transported to and from the Plains: they were not, as a rule, killed there. A cow typically began its life in Texas; was first herded north to the Plains; then herded eastwards (sometimes by rail), often to be better fed and cared for, however briefly, near a major centre of slaughter – almost always Chicago. Unlike the buffaloes, cattle were a marketable commodity. At the same time a division of labour was entailed in the handling of them.

The new human relationship with cows was much more one-sided than that with buffaloes had been, if only because the organisation and technology of capitalist America made it possible to move animals around on a massive scale. Two problems thus arose: how could you farm the land while managing large herds of animals and, more fundamentally, how could you keep those herds under control at all times? There was no question of their enjoying the independence of movement that the buffaloes had had. Human control over space is predicated on having control also over the animals that live there.

In the late 19th century the US Government offered incentives to those who settled on the land, especially farmers. The Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres to private settlers after they had lived in the same place for five years. The cattle economy, on the other hand, was by its nature inimical to any arrangement that involved a narrowly bounded space: what made cows so valuable was that they could find their own pasture. The problem therefore was to restrict their spatial freedom, while keeping them profitable.

To begin with, the West was not fenced at all. Why would a ranger want to fence in his cattle? Not only were they able to survive quite well without it, but it was easy for a small number of men on horseback to round them up and take them to market. They might wander off from time to time, but they didn’t need constant supervision. Control could be maintained in other ways: geology, the presence of water especially, would determine where they grazed; different herds would be assigned their own space within a given area – along riverbanks, for example. The technique involved patrolling the edges of the grazing, and driving the cows towards the centre. Failing this, the animals could be controlled symbolically, by branding them.

With the expansion of agriculture, the capital invested in fencing grew immensely. In 1871, a US Department of Agriculture report estimated that nearly $2 billion had already been spent, and that the annual expenditure was running at something like $200 million: for every dollar invested in livestock, another dollar was required to protect crops from wandering animals. The purpose of the report was to suggest a change in the way fences were used: instead of keeping animals out, they should be used to keep them in.

The usual fencing materials were scarce, and the most traditional – wood – was pretty much unobtainable. There wasn’t enough of the right sorts of stone, and Osage orange hedges – which were commonly used in the West – were hard to transplant and, as G. Basalla notes in The Evolution of Technology (1988), they ‘cast shadows on adjoining crops, usurped valuable growing space, and provided a shelter for weeds, vermin and insects’. The major drawback, however, was that it took an Osage orange hedge three or four years to grow to its full height.

In time the burgeoning rail network would provide the solution. Wood was already being shipped from the East in vast quantities to be used for house building, and the railways themselves required huge amounts of timber for bridges, sleepers and so on. On the other hand, to ship out wooden fencing was unprofitable, both because of the vastness of the spaces needing to be enclosed and because of the inefficiency involved in transporting such loads across enormous distances. A new type of fencing was clearly required.

In 1873 Henry Rose, who farmed near Waterman Station in Illinois, thought of a new way to control a ‘breachy’ cow. (‘Breachy’ was Rose’s word.) He attached a wooden board, studded with sharp pieces of wire, to the cow’s head, so that whenever the animal tried to squeeze through a narrow gap in a fence, it caused itself pain. After a while, it occurred to Rose that the wire could be attached to planks of wood along the fence itself. The experiment worked: the cow learned not to go near the fence.

Other farmers conducted similar trials. In 1861, a ten-year-old called Adrian Latta had attached sharp spikes to the bottom of his family’s fences to prevent hogs from coming onto their land. ‘The hogs got through a few times after the barbs were put in,’ he noted. ‘However, the barbs had the desired effect as the owner saw his hogs were getting terribly marked and kept them at home.’ What set Rose apart was that he took the trouble to patent his idea and to have it displayed at a farm exhibition held in de Kalb, Illinois.

At this stage, iron barbs supplemented wood rather than substituting for it. Wire fencing already existed ‘for enclosing’ – in the words of one advertisement – ‘railroads, canals, fields, cattle pastures, cemeteries, gardens, henneries, and for ornamental garden work, grape and rose trellises etc’. But it was delicate stuff, and fluctuations in temperature made it more so. Clearly, it would not keep a herd of cattle in its place. On the other hand, to break down a wire fence, a cow needed to bear down on it repeatedly. Reinforced with barbs which would cause it pain, the wire fence would be impregnable.

By 1874, six barbed-wire patents had been registered, and by 1876, half the share in one of the main patents had been acquired by Washburn and Moen, a Massachusetts-based iron and steel company. What made barbed wire so competitive? In 1880, Washburn and Moen, who were by then producing more of it than anyone else, made the following cost comparison with wooden fencing, taking as their example 40 rods (100 metres) of three-bar fences:

1000 feet pine fencing$15
80 posts$16
15 lbs nails$0.60
Barbed Wire
136 lbs barbed wire$14.96
40 posts$8
2 lbs staples$0.20

The beauty of the comparison is obvious: the barbed wire itself is priced marginally below the price of the main alternative, pine – i.e. it is priced artificially high. What makes it competitive is that it is much lighter and therefore cheaper to erect: fewer posts and nails are needed, and much less labour. In other ways, the new fencing technology resembled that used in the railroad and the telegraph, both of which also consisted of a multitude of wooden supports set at right angles to long lines of metal. It resembled them, too, in the immense lengths of metal involved, and in the way they reshaped topographical space. But where railroads and telegraph lines simply connected distant points for humans, barbed wire marked out boundary lines for animals.

By 1880, something like 50,000 miles of barbed-wire fence were in place. Marketing wasn’t difficult, and some distributors had quite spectacular ways of showing what their product could do. At an exhibition in San Antonio in 1876, John Gates (then just an agent for the manufacturers, later an iron magnate in his own right) sealed off part of the town’s central plaza with barbed-wire fencing and packed it with dozens of fierce-looking longhorn steers. When the animals charged the fence, the pain of the metal tearing into their flesh first made them even more angry, causing them to charge again, only to be wounded again, and at last to back away, having finally learned that the fence was best avoided.

There were by this time few farmers in the American West who didn’t know that barbed wire provided a cheap, flexible and effective means of controlling the movement of cattle without human intervention. The artificially high prices didn’t hold. In 1880, the actual prices paid were in fact about half those listed in the Washburn and Moen comparison. By 1885 they had halved again and by 1897, more than halved a second time. As the distances covered by the fencing increased, so did its uses. Although it was invented with the arable farmer in mind, it was taken up almost immediately by the cattle-owners.

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