Barbed-Wire Fence

Barbed-Wire Fence

Working this week on an article called “Literary Barbed Wire: Stretching and Cutting Fence from ‘The Connecticut Yankee’ to ‘Brokeback Mountain.'” With my mind focused on the late-nineteenth-century “invention,” I wasn’t surprised when I came upon this fence in snowy Utah Valley (“to invent” means, in the root sense, “to come upon”).

Control is the end promised by barbed-wire advertisements; barbed wire is the means. A hyperbolic paragraph in the 1885 Glidden Barb-Fence Journal makes this explicit:

It is the cheapest; it is the most indestructible; it is proof against wind; proof against flood; proof against fire; proof against snow drifts; proof against vermin. It casts no shade; it does not exhaust the soil. It is not stolen for fuel. It does not decay; boys cannot crawl through or over it; nor dogs; nor cats; nor any other animal; it watches with argus eyes the inside and outside, up, down and lengthwise; it prevents the “ins” from being “outs;” and the “outs” from being “ins;” watches at day-break, at noontide, at sunset and all night long; it is the lightest to handle; the strongest when erected; the easiest to transport. It saves lumber, nails, labor, vexation, time, patience, profanity and the crops. It answers all requirements of a perfect fence; it is in fact the only perfect fence.



About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at
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2 Responses to Barbed-Wire Fence

  1. mikerol says:

    Lovely photos. The third fence seems to make no sense unless it is to keep cattle, especially calves i suppose from heading off into the hills – as they have been known to! A few more feet of snow and the fences would disappear altogether. Fences are of course most infamous at concentration type camp enclosures. Thus, in the U.S. their use in tha respect goes back at least to the Civil war, which had the first such camps, as this war featured a lot of firsts that later were generalized throughtout the world The fence material once so simple has not not merely gone electric, but concertina, the kind of fence that if you are caught in it will make you sing in all discordances. Aside its use for keeping animals and people in and out, fences of all kinds – vide the famos Frost poem – act as psychological boundaries, and you acquire the psychological concept “border violation” , which can make for grievous injuries. – Western fences started to amaze me when I lived for a year in the “llano estacado” – where fences where actually hard to find for someone who was not used the size of these farms in Texas and south east New Mexico. There
    is one huge quadrant south of the Sacramentoes, from there – i,e. with Alamogordo at the northeast corner – to El Paso and Carlsbad, which seems to consist of four evenly divided parcels of lad in a 50 by 50 mile area.


    • Scott Abbott says:

      Control is the deal, as you say. And your “keeping animals and people in and out” led me back to the “argus eyes” quote I have added to the post.
      The first “concentration camps” using barbed wire were constructed during the Boer War, but, as you write, similar wire enclosures were constructed during the Civil War, but sans barbs, which were first attached in 1874.


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