Tenancy, Marriage, and the Boll Weevil Infestation, 1892–1930


In the early twentieth century, the cotton-growing regions of the U.S. South were dominated by families of tenant farmers. Tenant farming created opportunities and incentives for prospective tenants to marry at young ages. These opportunities and incentives especially affected African Americans, who had few alternatives to working as tenants. Using complete-count Census of Population data from 1900–1930 and Census of Agriculture data from 1889–1929, we find that increases in tenancy over time increased the prevalence of marriage among young African Americans. We then study how marriage was affected by one of the most notorious disruptions to southern agriculture at the turn of the century: the boll weevil infestation of 1892–1922. Using historical Department of Agriculture maps, we show that the boll weevil’s arrival reduced the share of farms worked by tenants as well as the share of African Americans who married at young ages. When the boll weevil infestation altered African Americans’ opportunities and incentives to marry, the share of African Americans who married young fell accordingly. Our results provide new evidence about the effect of economic and political institutions on demographic transformations.

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  1. 1.

    For a discussion of many freedwomen’s objection to their subordinate position within tenant marriages, see Bloome and Muller (2015), Foner (1988), Franklin and James (2015), Patterson (2000), and Stanley (1998).

  2. 2.

    Alston and Ferrie (2005) found little upward mobility into ownership among black tenants. In Jefferson County, Arkansas, for instance, only 1 % of black tenants became farm owners between 1920 and 1930. In 1910, approximately 20 % of black farmers were owners; this was the highest share prior to World War I, but it was still quite low compared with the 52 % of white farmers who were owners in 1910 (Elman et al. 2015:197).

  3. 3.

    In 1910, 57 % of employed black men and 52 % of employed black women worked in agriculture. The figures for white men and women were 33 % and 12 %, respectively. Forty-two percent of employed black women, compared with 28 % of employed white women, worked as domestics (U.S. Census Bureau 1985:72). African Americans were especially underrepresented in the professions. In 1910, African Americans made up only 5 % of teachers, 2 % of physicians, and 1% of lawyers, despite accounting for 10.7 % of the population (U.S. Census Bureau 1985:76, 79). By 1930, the share of both African Americans and whites working in agriculture had declined, but the range of occupations available to African Americans remained far more constrained than the range of occupations available to whites.

  4. 4.

    According to Fite (1984:84–85), local landowners and observers from the Department of Agriculture and state agricultural colleges doubted that sharecroppers and tenants were capable of growing anything other than cotton.

  5. 5.

    They also found that more land was put into cotton in the year of contact (Lange et al. 2009:703).

  6. 6.

    The term public works “was commonly used to refer to a job with minimal entry standards, like a mine or sawmill or blast furnace that would take any able-bodied male” (Wright 1986:97).

  7. 7.

    We estimate these ages using the procedure for indirect estimation described in Fitch and Ruggles (2000:60). This procedure produces unbiased, age-independent estimates of the median age at first marriage. These estimates are more accurate than widely used singulate mean age of marriage estimates when people’s ages at marriage are changing rapidly (see also Shyrock and Siegal 1980). We estimate that in 1900, 25 % of black men living in states that the weevil would eventually infest were married by age 20.5, 50 % were married by age 22.7, and 75 % were married by age 26.7. The corresponding ages for native-born white men and women were 21.4 and 18.0, 24.3 and 20.4, and 28.8 and 24.3, respectively. These numbers are based on all southern states hit by the boll weevil except Oklahoma, which we exclude here as well as in our analysis because Oklahoma was not incorporated until 1907. We observe 28 counties in Oklahoma and another 12 in Indian Territory in 1900. By 1910, these 40 counties were split into 76. With such drastic border changes throughout the state, our standardized counties would not reflect stable units of analysis.

  8. 8.

    Several previous studies have used the USDA maps to study the effects of the infestation on migration, agricultural production, schooling, and the agricultural labor market (Ager et al. 2017; Baker 2015; Fligstein 1981; Lange et al. 2009).

  9. 9.

    Complete-count census data for 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 were digitized by Ancestry.com. They are available at the National Bureau of Economic Research through an agreement with the Minnesota Population Center. Census schedules for 1890 were destroyed before they could be digitized.

  10. 10.

    A small minority of people recorded as currently married in these data did not have a spouse present in their household when the census was taken. Some evidence suggests that single black women overreported being married (Preston et al. 1992). We present results based on reported marriage irrespective of whether both spouses were present in the household because the household composition variables in the complete-count census microdata have not yet been cleaned or standardized across census years. Nonetheless, we obtain similar results if we use a more conservative measure of current marital status that includes only those people we identify as having a spouse present in their household. We identify a new household each time a new “head” appears in the microdata. However, because the household composition variables are not standardized, for households with more than two married people, we are unable to identify whose partner is not present in the household.

  11. 11.

    It is theoretically possible to study the marriage decisions of single people at risk of transitioning into marriage at each age by following cohorts across census years and comparing changes in the share ever-married to the share previously never-married. However, this method does not work well when the number of never-married people within a cohort and county could decline because of out-migration from the county or could increase because of in-migration to the county. As discussed earlier, one of the ways the boll weevil could have affected the prevalence of marriage among African Americans was by encouraging them to move.

  12. 12.

    We obtain the same results if we restrict our sample to men or women alone.

  13. 13.

    Cohabiting black couples had strong incentives to formalize their unions in law because some southern states made it a criminal offense for freedmen and freedwomen to live together without being married (Franke 1999:277; Stanley 1998:45).

  14. 14.

    As noted earlier, tenancy took many different forms. Tolnay (1999:9–10) distinguished between three types of tenants: cash tenants, who “paid owners a specific annual rent in cash for a farm and then kept the profits from the crop;” share tenants, who brought less capital and “divided profits from the cash crop with the landowner after harvest;” and sharecroppers, “who offered only their labor to the agreement with owners.” Sharecropping arrangements themselves varied “from state to state, crop to crop, county to county, and farm to farm” (Daniel 1985:4–5). We combine data on all types of tenancy for two reasons. First, we cannot create consistent panel data on the different types of tenancy separately for African Americans and whites using the Censuses of Agriculture. Second, we expect that all types of tenancy had similar effects on marriage because all provided access to land to people who could not purchase it and because all used the family as the basic work unit. In 1880, the share of marriages among young African Americans was highest in counties where the share of farms worked by tenants was greatest, irrespective of the type of tenancy (Bloome and Muller 2015:1416).

  15. 15.

    If omitted from our estimating equations, the growth in cotton production between 1900 and 1930 could induce a correlation between the timing of the weevil’s arrival and county-level marriage shares because the weevil was attracted to cotton, and cotton farming was associated with early marriage through its relationship to tenancy.

  16. 16.

    The vast majority of white southerners were native-born: between 1900 and 1930, the foreign-born share of the southern population never exceeded 2.6 % (Gibson and Lennon 1999).

  17. 17.

    Lange et al. (2009) also measured the time to and from the boll weevil’s arrival in a county, but these measures are less well-suited to our study because we have only four years of census data, each separated by a decade.

  18. 18.

    We found no evidence of spatial autocorrelation in our residuals. We examined the residuals using Moran’s I tests, connecting counties to all neighbors with which they shared a boundary point using a queen contiguity matrix (Arbia 2005). We consistently failed to reject the null hypothesis that the errors were independent, suggesting that our models with fixed effects and covariates rendered them independent and permit valid inference.

  19. 19.

    We use the number of farms operated by tenants because it is the only measure of tenancy that distinguishes black and white tenant farmers in all the years that we study. In three of the four years that we examine—1910, 1920, and 1930—we can measure the number of acres worked by black and white tenants combined. The correlation between the share of farms worked by tenants and the share of improved farm acres worked by tenants is greater than .9 in every year. Using our most parameterized model, with fixed effects and county covariates, but focusing only on the years 1910–1930, we find that the boll weevil infestation had substantively similar effects on the share of farms worked by tenants and the share of improved acres worked by tenants. Our complete-count census data do not include information about whether any individual person was a tenant farmer.

  20. 20.

    The results reported in Fig. 5 normalize group-specific farm counts by the total number of farms in the county, but separate analyses of the raw counts indicate that the boll weevil decreased the number of farms worked by black farmers and by black tenants.

  21. 21.

    We also observe a strong and statistically significant interaction between the boll weevil’s arrival and the historical share of acres devoted to cotton when we enter this share linearly into the estimating equation.

  22. 22.

    There is more variation in the share of farms worked by black or white tenants across counties than within them, so our estimated effect constitutes a smaller portion of the total standard deviation in our sample. However, our estimate comes from a model with county and year fixed effects, so it is more appropriate to compare it with the residual standard deviation than with the total standard deviation.

  23. 23.

    Decomposing the total effect of the infestation into portions that are mediated, moderated, and independent of tenancy would require us to assume that no confounders of the tenancy-marriage relationship were affected by the infestation (VanderWeele 2015). We do not believe that this assumption is tenable, nor are there sensitivity analyses that can be used when it is violated.


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Authorship is alphabetical to reflect equal contributions. We thank Scott Walker of the Harvard Map Collection for his excellent assistance and Orlando Patterson, Paul Rhode, Eva Sierminska, Kenneth Sylvester, Arland Thornton, and Christopher Wildeman for their helpful comments on previous drafts. We presented earlier versions of this article at Harvard University’s Workshop in History, Culture, and Society, and the annual meeting of the Population Association of America. Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation, an NICHD center grant to the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan (R24 HD041028), and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program.

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Correspondence to Deirdre Bloome or James Feigenbaum or Christopher Muller.

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Bloome, D., Feigenbaum, J. & Muller, C. Tenancy, Marriage, and the Boll Weevil Infestation, 1892–1930. Demography 54, 1029–1049 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-017-0581-3

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  • Marriage
  • Economic history
  • Economic and political institutions
  • Racial inequality