A Short History of Barbed Wire

The early history of barbed wire was characterized by a long learning curve for everyone who made, transported, and used it.

| May 2006

A little-remembered fact in the history of barbed wire is that the infamous "fence cutters" weren't the only people who hated it. Everyone making, handling, shipping, and storing barbed wire dreaded contact with its needle-sharp points. The final purchasers, farmers and ranchers, also hated the wire because they were being forced to install fences to control their livestock or protect their crops, usually against their will.

Railroad employees feared the prickly rolls would damage other freight, and required the first rolls to be enclosed inside a wooden barrel for shipment, in effect doubling freight costs. The sale, shipment and use of barbed wire was a learning experience for all concerned but, in the end, the new product was an effective, economical alternative to all other fencing materials.

Manufacturers tried to limit the weight of each roll to 100 pounds or less, knowing that usually only one depot agent, freight hauler, or store clerk would attend loading and unloading along the way. Common sense dictated that the wire be rolled onto wooden spools, a solution that minimized weight and cost. A hole was bored in the spool's center, allowing retailers to slip spools onto a horizontal bar for easy unrolling.

As land was constantly being settled and sold, and boundaries changed, wire fences were sometimes dismantled, and the wire rolled and re-used at another location. A common joke of the time came when two old-timers were talking. "I first learned to cuss while unrolling barbed wire," one would say. "I first learned to cuss while trying to unroll wire rolled up by someone who didn't know how," the other lamented. Both men told the truth.

Soon after barbed wire spools became common, people began designing tools to make the unrolling job easier. Patent experts tell us more than 2,000 tools and devices were patented before 1935 for use in carrying, unrolling, building, or repairing barbed wire fences. Such tools are still being created and revised today for that same use. Collectors sometimes mistake spool carriers for blacksmith tongs. The simple spool un-roller looks like a broken lawn mower handle, but actually works beautifully, pulling the spool along the ground as it unrolls with almost no effort. Each is more than 100 years old.

Another old-timer explained the use of barbed wire simply. "This may be the only universally used product that is hated by man and beast, yet without doubt was and is 100 percent successful in everyday use." FC