The Ballad of the Boll Weevil

Library of Congress Control Number 2007662067

The boll weevil infestation, as Blind Willie McTell sang, would leave farmers without enough money to pay their drug store bills, buy gasoline or meals, but it also reshaped the economy and institutions of the cotton South.

When I teach economic history to undergraduate students, I start with a celebration of the exciting, surprising, and sometimes weird places scholars have “found” historical data.

(As Adam Slez reminded us in his post last week here at Broadstreet, historical data is not just sitting around waiting for scholars to find it. Our precious data exists (and has survived) because someone collected it and preserved it, old maps included.)

Data does not always show up as a spreadsheet or .dta file and for economic historians (and the rest of you historically-interested social scientists hanging out at Broadstreet), I would wager that it rarely does. Sometimes, we need to work harder and transform elements of the historical record into data we can analyze quantitatively. Historical maps, especially to a researcher with a bit of GIS background, are a gold mine. 

But with undergraduates (and I suppose blog readers), I aim for “show don’t tell.” So, early in our first class, I present the following map and ask my students what they think it is:

The answers vary from semester to semester. The railroad network is a popular wrong answer. One student thought it showed Civil War troop movements. Eventually, someone gets it (or googles it): this map tracks the infestation of the boll weevil—America’s most celebrated agricultural pest as Lange, Olmstead, and Rhode (2009) call it—through the American south in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. The map itself and others like it were put together by civil servants in the USDA, the kind of detailed and thankless bureaucratic work that the hollowed state Pavithra Suryanarayan warned us about in a Broadstreet post last week might have difficulty with. Year by year, the boll weevil infested county after county.

The boll weevil is a beetle that feeds on cotton. Though tiny—the insects measure less than a quarter-inch when full grown—they eat a lot of cotton and they struck terror into American cotton growers. A USDA official called the pest’s march a “wave of evil” and tales of its destruction darkened blues and folk songs sung by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and others. 

The weevil first crossed the US border in 1892 in southern Texas. Over the next thirty years, the pest infested a region where cotton was king and where racial segregation and oppression were violently enforced and where one party ruled the political system. The boll weevil induced sweeping changes to the southern agricultural economy and these effects extended well beyond the farm. In a series of recent papers, economic historians, sociologists, and other scholars have used the agricultural shock to study a wide range of economic and social and illuminate the institutional features of the South.

Note: If I’m a bit loose with my descriptions of the empirical strategies employed in the papers I’ll discuss in this post, just remember every time I write “after the boll weevil”, I probably mean “from the differences-in-differences design comparing counties already infested and those not yet infested, controlling for county fixed effects and year fixed effects” and sometimes I mean “from a triple differences-in-differences design comparing counties already infested and those not yet infested with higher or lower specialization in cotton according to 1890 (pre-boll weevil) data…” If you are really worried about identification, read the papers!

In the first of the recent boll weevil studies, Lange, Olmstead, and Rhode (2009) explore the direct agricultural effects. The timing of the pest is key. Before the infestation, cotton planting and production actually rose as farmers “attempt[ed] to squeeze out one last large crop.” Once the boll weevil hit, however, cotton production, acreage, and yields all fell. Ager, Brueckner, and Herz (2017) also show changes on the farm as after the boll weevil there were fewer tenant farms, lower farm wages, and decreased female labor force participation.

How did the cotton south respond to the pest? As Lange et al document, some farmers shifted to other crops, notably corn. But for many sharecroppers and tenant farmers, flight rather than fight was the optimal response. Scholars dating to Fligstein (1981) have found high rates of migration, especially among African Americans, out of boll weevil infested counties.

But the effects of the boll weevil went well beyond the farm. Clay et al (2019) show that the changing crop mix saved the south from pellagra, an endemic disease caused by a lack of niacin in your diet. Before the boll weevil, the Southern monoculture of cotton pushed out local production of foodstuffs. Southerners mostly ate milled Midwestern corn but this corn, though cheap, lacked niacin. After the boll weevil, locally grown corn, rich in niacin, reduced incidence of the disease.

The decline in tenant farming—and the high rates of child labor that often accompanied it—echoed from the farm to the classroom. Baker (2015) studies Georgia as the Boll Weevil rolled through the state. He finds that African American children, in contrast to their white peers, were pushed out of the fields and into classrooms. Ultimately, the boll weevil could explain as much as 30% of the narrowing in the black-white school enrollment gap during this period. Baker, with John Blanchette and Katherine Eriksson, followed up, studying the long run education effects. Observed in 1940, black and white children benefited from more education, as attainment increased by about a third of a year for children who were 4 to 9 when their counties were hit with the boll weevil.

Interactions with Institutions

The effect of any X on Y that social scientists care enough about to study, no matter how cleanly causally identified, is a product of the institutional (and historical) context. That is especially true in the case of the boll weevil where contemporaneous and historical southern institutions, particularly the legacy of chattel slavery and racial violence and discrimination, mediate and shape, well, everything. Even the more standard economic effects of the boll weevil—for example, as Baker showed, it lowered the opportunity cost of schooling and so children enrolled at higher rates—fit in the context of a region with weak and poorly financed public education, low labor market demand for educated black workers, and tenant farming. Some of the recent boll weevil scholarship uses the shock to trace out and document these southern institutional features in even greater detail.

In my own work with Deirdre Bloom and Christopher Muller, we study marriage in the postbellum South. The sharecropping system was complex and varied throughout the South and over time. But a common institutional feature was the organization of tenancy by family. African American women were generally unable to rent or sharecrop land on their own as white landowners preferred to contract with male heads of household who pledged the work of an entire family. Lacking the financial resources to buy land, this led to an incentive for African Americans, particularly women, to marry at younger ages to get access to land. After the boll weevil infestation, we find that the share of teenagers and twenty-somethings married falls, with much starker effects of the pest on African Americans than whites. 

That the decision to enter into marriage—when, with whom, etc—is influenced by economic factors is not new nor is it unique to the South in the era of the boll weevil. But the precise way the context of tenant farming and its institutions shape marriage decisions underscores how vital it is for scholars to grasp the institutional setting of their analysis.

In a recent working paper, Muller and Daniel Schrage use the boll weevil shock to understand the political economy of incarceration. Racial disparities in incarceration date to the postbellum period. However, the sharecropping system, for all of its exploitative features, seems to have blunted rates of incarceration. Studying Georgia, Muller and Schrage find that there is more incarceration, especially for property crimes, after the boll weevil devastates a county. As the authors summarize: “When the boll weevil interfered with cotton production, elite landowners no longer needed to keep actual or potential agricultural laborers—now a surplus population—out of prison.”

Effects on Institutions

But could a shock of this size have reshaped southern institutions? In a new working paper with Shom Mazumder and Cory Smith, I ask (and we try to answer) just that question. We take Hirschmann’s exit and voice theory to the cotton south. The boll weevil generated huge amounts of black out-migration. As Clay et al (2020) document in a working paper, half of the fathers in their linked sample move out of their county of origin after the boll weevil hits. We infer large migration rates from changing population counts and shares as well. 

Faced with a labor force with a clear exit option, the status quo in the South changed in significant ways, though we find no evidence that the boll weevil altered the one-party nature of the formal political system. Racial violence—measured with lynchings—are rarer in counties after the boll weevil hits. The construction of Confederate monuments—sites of symbolic racial oppression during the Jim Crow era—is also down following the infestations. In the longer run, we find more black voter registration and a smaller black-white voter registration gap in southern counties with more boll weevil exposure, even before the federal passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

In Lead Belly’s version, the boll weevil was just looking for a home. But the pest disrupted the agricultural economy of the south in ways that were shaped by the region’s institutions and even shaped those institutions.


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