BARBED AND DANGEROUS: Constructing the Meaning of Barbed Wire in the 19th Century
Integrated Studies & History Lecture
by Dr. Lyn Bennett and Dr. Scott Abbott
Wednesday November 11th, 2009
3:00 pm in the Library Auditorium (LI 120)
The advent of barbed wire, invented simultaneously by three residents of De Kalb, Illinois in 1874, generated immediate conflict. Given the cost and scarcity of lumber and stone and the huge expanses awaiting fencing in the West, barbed wire was a heralded invention. Like other fences, it promised to control wayward animals, to create order out of chaos through physical separation. But the new fence did so by pricking and cutting animals that came too close. Early barbed wire was so effective in that regard that manufacturers and advertisers were quickly forced to modify both the physical form and the image of barbed wire. And here lies a major problem for the advertiser: how does one promote a dangerous fence (because if it’s not dangerous, it doesn’t work) and a non-dangerous fence (because if it injures stock, it works badly) in the same image? This lecture examines the manner in which late-nineteenth-century manufacturers constructed multiple and often contradictory meanings for barbed wire in their advertising. The images involved are sexist, racist, colonialist, devilish, funny, sexy, beligerant, exotic, religious, and domestic.