Joseph Glidden: Inventions and Biography

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, we'll learn about Joseph Glidden and how his invention of barbed wire changed American society and shaped the American frontier and settlement of the Great Plains.

Effects of Glidden's Inventions

You may have heard or encountered barbed wire, a wire that has sharp points at intervals for fencing, but you may not understand the role it played in transforming properties in the 19th century.

Glidden's Early Life

Born January 18, 1813 in Charlestown, New Hampshire, Joseph Farwell Glidden would go on to create one of the most important inventions for the West. His family owned a farm in rural New York. He grew up working the farm, but eventually pursued a career in teaching. He attended Middlebury Academy in Vermont, and seminary in New York, and then taught for a few years. However, he lost interest in teaching, and returned to his family farm. He married Clarissa Foster, and had three children, but his wife and children all died within a few years.

After that, Glidden decided to make his way west working as a thresher. He eventually settled in De Kalb, Illinois around 1850. He bought his own farm, and married Lucinda Warne in 1851. He even became sheriff of the county. As a prosperous farmer, Glidden soon became interested in fencing. As the legend goes, Lucinda's hairpins kept going missing. She suspected that the couple's young daughter, Elva, was stealing them. That is, until Lucinda saw Joseph take two out of his own pocket, and he told her that he was working on an idea for a fence.

Invention of Barbed Wire

Glidden was not the first to come up with an idea for barbed wire. In fact, he was inspired when he went to the De Kalb county fair in 1873 and saw Henry Rose's single-stranded barbed wire. Rose's invention consisted of boards with nails hanging from a smooth wire. Glidden figured that instead of using wooden boards (which were expensive), he could put the nails (or barbs) directly on the wire. What Glidden did was use two strands of wire twisted together to hold the barb spurs in place. His invention was a big improvement.

Joseph Glidden

Glidden received a patent for his fence in 1874. He partnered with Isaac Ellwood to create the Barb Fence Company of De Kalb. They were able to cheaply and easily manufacture his barbed wire. His ability to mass-produce his own product made it even more profitable, and soon Glidden's barbed wire became the most popular wire fencing in the country.

Transforming the West

The invention had massive consequences for the plains. A farm needs enclosures to mark its boundaries and more importantly, to protect crops from grazing cattle and sheep. At this time, there was still open ranching, and cattle roamed far and wide munching and trampling on crops. There weren't many trees on the plains, so it was difficult and expensive for farmers to get the lumber they would normally use to create sturdy fences. Barbed wire was cheap and easy to get. Simple wire fencing was easily broken by cattle leaning up against it, but the sharp barbs on Glidden's barbed wire kept the cows away.

Barbed Wire
barbed wire

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