The History of Barbed Wire
A brief history of barbed wire and barbed wire collecting
Coiled around fence posts, lying in junk piles and ditches, strands of farm and ranch history tell a story of the past. Barbed wire, with more designs than most people could imagine, shows great ingenuity and commercial competition from the 19th century.
First used in ranchers' attempts to control stock and wild animals, the sharp-pointed wire has been used in other ag applications as well. Those include operations with hogs that never give up trying to root under woven wire and board fences. Today, interest in barbed wire collecting remains keen with organizations, shows and a new reference book available for novices and veteran collectors.
The idea for the original barbed wire likely occurred just prior to 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law, says collector John Mantz, Bakersfield, Calif. The Homestead Act allowed claimants of 160 acres of government land to establish a home and receive ownership after five years of residency and improvements.
But the problem of buffalo and free-grazing cattle destroying crops soon reached disastrous proportions, adds John (who's also executive director of the American Barb Wire Collectors Society). And the split rail and rock fences used on eastern farms were not available in the west.
In 1867, several individuals applied for patents on barbed wire fencing after smooth wire designs proved mostly ineffective. Alphonso Dabb, Lucian B. Smith and William D. Hunt are credited with starting the "Barbed Wire Boom."
"But none of their wires ever saw production," notes John, "with the only known patent specimen of Smith's invention being a series of small wooden blocks joined by short pieces of wire with sharpened nails protruding from each side of the blocks.
"In 1868, New York blacksmith Michael Kelly patented his 'Thorny Fence' wire, the first successful barbed wire produced," John says. "Interestingly, Frenchman Louis F. Jannin, working independently, had patented an almost identical wire in 1865. Their designs used a diamond-shape barb on two wires. But Kelly, after producing a million pounds of his 'Diamond Point', lost out due to faulty patent language."
John says Kelly patented other wire types, including his "Pin Wire," which today fetches a three-figure price for each 18-inch "stick." Other inventors - Judson, Jacob Haish, Rose, and Joseph Glidden - soon joined the fray and applied for patents. First made on modified coffee grinders (Glidden), grindstones and in home workshops (Kelly), barbed wire was soon produced on intricate machinery developed to greatly speed production.
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