The Journal of Economic History


The Impact of the Boll Weevil, 1892–1932

Fabian Langea1, Alan L. Olmsteada2 and Paul W. Rhodea3

a1 Assistant Professor of Economics, Yale University, P.O. Box 208264, New Haven, CT 06520–8264; and Research Fellow at IZA – Institute for the Study of Labor. E-mail:

a2 Distinguished Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute of Governmental Affairs at the University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616–8617; and member of the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. E-mail:

a3 McClelland Professor of Economics, Eller College of Management, The University of Arizona, P.O. Box 210108, Tucson, AZ 85721–0108; and Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. E-mail:


The boll weevil is America's most celebrated agricultural pest. We analyze new county-level panel data to provide sharp estimates of the time path of the insect's effects on the southern economy. We find that in anticipation of the contact, farmers increased production, attempting to squeeze out one last large crop. Upon arrival, the weevil had a large negative and lasting impact on cotton production, acreage, and especially yields. In response, rather than taking land out of agricultural production, farmers shifted to other crops. We also find striking effects on land values and population movements.


A number of talented students, including Jeffery Graham, Pablo Reynolds, and Elise Perez, have contributed to advancing this research. Shelagh Matthews Mackay, whose attention to detail and insights have left a positive mark, deserves special mention. We would also like to thank participants at the presentations at the NBER-DAE meetings, the Business History Conference, and at the University of Michigan and UCLA, as well as the editors of this Journal and four referees for their comments. The research of Olmstead and Rhode has been supported by National Science Foundation Collaborative Research Grants, “Seeds and Slaves: Technological Change, Plantation Efficiency, and Southern Economic Development,” SES-0550913 and SES-0551130.