Future Tense

That Beautiful Barbed Wire

The concertina wire Trump loves at the border has a long, troubling legacy in the West.

A soldier walking beside a barbed wire fence.
A U.S. Army soldier stands on guard duty near the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas, on Nov. 5. John Moore/Getty Images

American troops without much to do are on the U.S.-Mexico border stringing concertina wire, a type of barbed wire manufactured in coils and often used to create an obstacle in war, to stop a caravan of refugees that’s still thousands of miles away. In the absence of much else in the way of visual interest to illustrate the story, media outlets ran images of soldiers unspooling wire and spotlighted the word wire in their headlines. On Saturday, at a rally in Montana, President Trump hailed the troops’ work with wire in particular: “I noticed all that beautiful barbed wire going up today. Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight.” His audience cheered.

It makes sense that Trump mentioned barbed wire in Montana. In typical Trump fashion, he’s put his finger on the perfect symbol to activate his base—probably without even really knowing why. (Barbed wire is such a rich symbol that it’s spawned multiple cultural histories, though if Trump has read one of them, I’ll eat a cedar fencepost.) Although some Trump opponents tweeted photos of concentration camp inmates along with the president’s words, barbed wire’s meanings—violent enclosure, permanent control—were first laid down in the American West.

Ohioan Lucien Smith patented barbed wire in 1867. Joseph Glidden patented the most widely used barbed wire fence in 1874, a dozen years after the passage of the Homestead Act. Even in its infancy, long before its uses on battlefields and concentration camps, this technology was far from politically neutral. Barbed wire, Reviel Netz writes in his history of the invention, “is contagious” because of the very fact that barbs face inward and outward, enclosing a rancher’s herd but also wounding any other cows that might try to encroach upon that land. “By enclosing a space,” Netz points out, “[barbed wire] is thereby automatically present in all areas bordering on that space.” It’s a tool of violence and surveillance. The 1885 Glidden Journal, a publication of the barbed wire company headed by Joseph Glidden, described its fence: “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.” People who put up barbed wire fences when the technology was new were making statements about the nature of landowning in the West—defining the boundaries of their property with the permanent potential for violence.

The West’s enclosure via barbed wire had its victims. In 1947, historian Wayne Gard cataloged the resistance to barbed wire in Texas, which came from ranchers whose cattle couldn’t access water because so much open range was now fenced, as well as cowboys who were rendered obsolete by the new technology. When the fences first went up, owners of livestock sued railroads that were using them to keep animals off the tracks, seeking to hold the corporations liable for the damage the cows sustained. The blizzards of the mid-1880s concentrated tens of thousands of cows against new barbed wire fences in Texas, where they died of starvation or cold. The first generations of fences had larger, sharper barbs. The cows bashed against the fences and got wounds, which would get infested with screwworms.

But eventually, white settlers in the West learned to appreciate the way the fences allowed them to dominate far-flung spaces. The barbed wire companies helped them along. In a Trumpian spectacle of violent control, John “Bet-a-Million” Gates, a salesman of barbed wire working for the Washburn-Moen Company, came up with the gimmick of erecting a corral in Military Plaza in San Antonio in 1876 and putting a bunch of longhorns, green to the barbed wire concept, inside of it. The cattle tried to get out, slashing themselves against the fence, until they finally stopped trying. The crowd was convinced, and Gates brought in “orders for more wire than the factory could produce,” Sidney A. Brintle writes. Trump would also have approved of Gates’ later path: The showy salesman left Washburn-Moen, started a new barbed wire company where he made millions from wire manufactured using a patent of questionable legality, and turned the profits from that work into oil money.

Companies promoting barbed wire fencing used imagery in their promotional materials that played on familiar prejudices of the day, making sure the farmers and ranchers interested in buying knew that they could keep Native Americans, black people, children, beasts owned by others, and poor people out with the new invention. In their cultural history of barbed wire, Lyn Ellen Bennett and Scott Abbott find copious textual and visual examples in company literature: a barbed wire fence lining a field of watermelons while a Sambo figure salivates outside; a child in raggedy clothes caught on a fence, stolen apples spilling out of his pockets; a city-born “dude” dressed up in fancy gear, finding himself “pricked on barbs of steel.” The 1887 Glidden Barb-Fence Journal wrote of the idea of using barbed wire to fence out Native people: “The government should by all means adopt for this purpose the Glidden ‘Thick set.’ It makes the best ‘hog fence’ in the world. It might scratch the deviltry out of Geronimo and his gang.”

The barbed wire industry—prescient capitalists—envisioned that the uses for this fencing would go far beyond farming. An image of “Base Ball Grounds, enclosed with ‘Barb Armed’ Fence” showed how a sports promoter could make sure only paying spectators got the good seats.

1876 Washburn & Moen “Barb Fence Armor” trading card featuring the Boston Base Ball Grounds.
1876 Washburn & Moen “Barb Fence Armor” trading card featuring the Boston Base Ball Grounds. Washburn & Moen/Heritage Auctions

The barbed wire fence was, in a word, patriarchal. “The character of a man may be known by a glance at his surroundings,” Bennett and Abbott quote an 1887 edition of the Glidden Barb-Fence Journal. “If the farmer’s buildings be snug … his stock sleek, well fed and kept in their proper places by good fences, you may be morally certain he is a prosperous, well-to-do and influential man in his community. You may also be certain that he used the Glidden wire.” The respectable farmer who used a barbed wire fence could make all things conform to his will. “The Barb Fence is the only means for obliging every body and every thing to enter a man’s premises by the same way that he himself enters,” Washburn & Moen and I.L. Ellwood wrote in an 1876 booklet. That beautiful, beautiful barbed wire.

Reviel Netz argues convincingly that the history of the technology’s development in the American West has to be seen in relationship with barbed wire’s later period, when the industry supplied armies and occupying forces with roll upon roll of the stuff to use for defense and imprisonment: “Both can be considered, at a certain level of abstraction, as expressions of the same relations: space being brought under control; flesh being brought under the violence of iron.”

During World War I, the industry boomed—U.S. Steel alone produced 2.8 million miles of wire, according to Netz. Even if not all of it was intended for the western front, Netz argues, “it would not be far wrong to say, as a rough estimate, that every day for the duration of the war, an amount of barbed wire equivalent to the entire length of the front was laid.” The wire was not, like a castle wall, a complete defense, but rather slowed men down as they tried to advance, making them into fodder for the newly available machine guns. The wire could be laid down fast, and so the fields of battle were covered in drifts of it. There are some horrible passages of memoirs of soldiers that touch on the effects of barbed wire. Netz quotes a passage from Erich Maria Remarque, who remembered seeing an advancing soldier shot while in a wire tangle: “His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.”

In the next war, when it was used to enclose concentration camps, Netz writes that “barbed wire reverted to its original function of controlling weak living beings, depriving them of their last powers so that total control could be gained.” As with so many Trumpian symbols, barbed wire’s darkest meanings are fascist: the domination of the powerless by the powerful. The fact that those meanings are also tied up with the dream of the West—to own land, and a lot of it; to be sure that nothing happens on that land that you cannot control; to inflict violence on those who threaten the dream—makes it the perfect fence for the moment.