The Perfect Fence: Untangling the Meanings of Barbed Wire

The Perfect Fence: Untangling the Meanings of Barbed Wire

The Perfect Fence: Untangling the Meanings of Barbed Wire

The Perfect Fence: Untangling the Meanings of Barbed Wire


Barbed wire is made of two strands of galvanized steel wire twisted together for strength and to hold sharp barbs in place. As creative advertisers sought ways to make an inherently dangerous product attractive to customers concerned about the welfare of their livestock, and as barbed wire became commonplace on battlefields and in concentration camps, the fence accrued a fascinating and troubling range of meanings beyond the material facts of its construction.

In The Perfect Fence, Lyn Ellen Bennett and Scott Abbott explore the multiple uses and meanings of barbed wire, a technological innovation that contributes to America's shift from a pastoral ideal to an industrial one. They survey the vigorous public debate over the benign or "infernal" fence, investigate legislative attempts to ban or regulate wire fences as a result of public outcry, and demonstrate how the industry responded to ameliorate the image of its barbed product.

Because of the rich metaphorical possibilities suggested by a fence that controls through pain, barbed wire developed into an important motif in works of literature from the late nineteenth century to the present day.

Early advertisements proclaimed that barbed wire was "the perfect fence," keeping "the ins from being outs, and the outs from being ins." Bennett and Abbott conclude that while barbed wire is not the perfect fence touted by manufacturers, it is indeed a meaningful thing that continues to influence American identities.


The past couple of years (2016-2017) have been characterized by a great deal of discussion about fences and walls in us political culture. Although the Berlin Wall came crumbling down after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, other walls and fences separating peoples and places have been fortified or constructed, most notably along the borders of North and South Korea, Israel and Palestine, and the United States and Mexico. in fact, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, passed during the George W. Bush administration (and supported by Republicans and Democrats alike), was the legislative impetus for the construction of a fortified wall. More than a fence, 700 miles are constructed already along various segments of the international border in Texas and other parts of the Southwest. the campaign and election of President Donald Trump in 2016 accelerated that process, with talk of a much bigger and more expensive wall, with more vocalized support for and opposition against it, and with curiously far more media attention and political activism than Bush’s current border “fence” ever received.

The issues regarding the development of walls and fences along international borders share common trajectories and histories, including issues such as immigration control, commercial trade, contraband and smuggling, xenophobia, and national security (especially efforts to thwart terrorist activities). All of these issues revolve around more secure borders and restricting or controlling the movement of people and goods. For the US-Mexico border wall, there is a uniquely American West element in its development, both in the location of its construction and in the inherent questions of immigration, labor, and social issues that are extremely pertinent to western economies and politics.

But the West has a long history with fences. Lyn Ellen Bennett and Scott Abbott explore this history and culture in the region deeply in The Perfect Fence: Untangling the Meanings of Barbed Wire, which traces the invention of barbed wire and the history of fencing the West. Although a few other books . . .

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