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

Joint with Deirdre Bloom and Christopher Muller

Demography 54(3):1029-1049.


In the early twentieth century, the cotton-growing regions of the US South were dominated by families of tenant farmers. Tenant farming created both 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 both the share of farms worked by tenants and the share of African Americans who married at young ages. When the boll weevil altered African Americans' opportunities and incentives to start families, 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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