Antique Barb Wire Variants

Tuesday Treasures tells micro-histories of QBO items from the ordinary to the vanishingly rare, but this is one of the few actually designed for telling history: an Antique Barb Wire display! (AKA Barbed Wire or Barbwire). This sampler was made by Amos Crouch, who lived in Chandler, Oklahoma, so some of his plaques are even shaped like the OK state. Top to bottom here are the Brinkerhoff Two-Point Lance Twisted Ribbon, a variant of Brinkerhoff’s Winged Saber Point, patented by Jacob Brinkerhoff of Auburn, New York in 1879. Next is the Glidden Two-Point, aptly dubbed “The Winner” by its inventor Joseph F. Glidden and easily recognizable as the one we use today. Then Crandall’s Champion Barbed Wire, AKA Crandall’s Ric-Rac, AKA the Zig-Zag, then T.V. Allis’s Buckthorn Flat Ribbon, Kelly’s Diamond Point Right Twist, and last Hiram B. Scutt’s Y Plate or Arrowplate. There were so many producers that today there are multiple variants of the wires’ descriptive titles and spellings of the patent holder’s names on these display plaques; it’s understandable that this wealth of material fascinates collectors!

Although barb wire is associated with the American West, two Frenchmen, Leonce Eugene Grassin-Baledans and Louis François Janin, separately invented it in 1860 and 1865, intending to deter humans as the razor wire atop junkyard fences does today. But after the American Civil War, railways pushing west needed to keep buffalo off their tracks, and ranchers and farmers flooded the plains, competing against each other and the Native Americans already living there. Traditional fencing didn’t work; wood was too scarce, stone too labor-intensive, and hedgerows couldn’t grow. Inspired by the two French guys American inventors stepped up en masse; between 1868 – 1874 there were over 500 U.S. patents for barb wire variants and by 1899 there were 150 American barb wire makers, so we won’t be covering them all here! In the long run Patent #157,124, Joseph F. Glidden’s “Winner” Improvement to Barbed Wire, won out. A 60ish gentleman tinkering at home, Glidden initially used a rotating grindstone to twist two lengths of wire together, holding the barbs in place; the barbs he created using his coffee mill (because who doesn’t enjoy metal shavings in their morning Cup O’Joe?) But as an appreciative user once wrote to him, barb wire “takes no room, exhausts no soil, shades no vegetation, is proof against high winds, makes no snowdrifts, and is both durable and cheap” – an 1800s 5-star review!

The competition for livelihood between ranchers in some areas, especially cattle ranchers vs. sheep ranchers, got so ferocious that cutting wire fences was made a felony. In some Texas counties there are still old laws on the books prohibiting Concealed Carry of Wire Cutters. 

And of course barb wire was used against humans. Within 30 years it was on battlefields snaring combatants, circling concentration camps, imprisoning POWs, restricting American migrants during the Depression Dust Bowl and blockading borders. Native American Plains tribes called barbed wire “the devil’s rope” because it trapped the wild buffalo they needed for food. Fortunately, in movies when you see someone tangled in the stuff, strands of rubber with rubber ‘barbs’ are used, so during the 1980s Punk kids crafted fierce-looking jewelry of the same soft, non-stabby material. Want to learn more? Visit The Barbed Wire History Museum in DeKalb, Illinois, home of Joseph F. Glidden, or The Barbed Wire History Museum in La Crosse, Kansas, or attend one of the many annual collectors’ conventions. And if you had any doubt as to who ‘won’ the cattle vs. sheep wars, the average omnivorous American eats 60 pounds of beef per year, vs. 1.4 pounds of lamb (baby sheep) or mutton (grown-up sheep). Moo!