Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-8cclj Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-29T14:01:17.237Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 December 2008

Distinguished Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute of Governmental Affairs, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616–8617, and member of the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. E-mail:
McClelland Professor of Economics, Eller College of Management, The University of Arizona, 1130 E. Helen Street, P.O. Box 210108, Tucson, AZ 85721–0108, and Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. E-mail:


The cliometrics literature on slave efficiency has generally focused on static questions. We take a decidedly more dynamic approach. Drawing on the records of 142 plantations with 509 crops years, we show that the average daily cotton-picking rate increased about fourfold between 1801 and 1862. We argue that the development and diffusion of new cotton varieties were the primary sources of the increased efficiency. These findings have broad implications for understanding the South's preeminence in the world cotton market, the pace of westward expansion, and the importance of indigenous technological innovation.

Copyright © The Economic History Association 2008

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Affleck, Thomas.“The Early Days of Cotton Growing in the South-West” De Bow's Review 10, no. 6 (1851): 668–69.Google Scholar
Affleck, Thomas.Affleck's Southern Rural Almanac, and Plantation and Garden Calendar for 1854. Washington, MS: Thomas Affleck, 1853.Google Scholar
Alabama State Intelligencer [Tuscaloosa, AL], various issues.Google Scholar
Alexandria Gazette [Alexandria, VA], 12 October 1812.Google Scholar
American Farmer [Baltimore, MD], various issues.Google Scholar
American Mercury [Hartford, CT], 10 October 1826.Google Scholar
American Watchman [Wilmington, DE], 5 November 1814.Google Scholar
Anderson, Ralph, & Gallman, Robert E.. “Slaves as Fixed Capital: Slave Labor and Southern Economic Development” Journal of American History 64, no. 1 (1977): 2446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser [Baltimore, MD], 20 February 1818.Google Scholar
Barney, D., & Flesher, D. L.. “Early Nineteenth-Century Productivity Accounting: The Locust Grove Slave Ledger” Accounting, Business, and Financial History 4, no. 2 (1994): 275–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bassett, John Spencer, ed. Correspondence of Andrew Jackson. Vol. 5. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 19261935.Google Scholar
Boston Gazette [Boston, MA], 20 November 1815.Google Scholar
Brubaker, Curt L., Bourland, E. M., & Wendel, Jonathan F.. “The Origin and Domestication of Cotton.” In Cotton: Origin, History, Technology, and Production, edited by Smith, C. Wayne and Cothren, J. Tom, 331. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.Google Scholar
Brubaker, Curt L., & Wendel, Jonathan F.. “Reevaluating the Origin of Domesticated Cotton (Gossypium Hirsutum; Malvanceae) Using Nuclear Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphisms (RFLPs)” American Journal of Botany 81, no. 10 (1994): 1309–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Campbell, John Douglas. “The Gender Division of Labor, Slave Reproduction, and the Slave Family Economy on Southern Cotton Plantations, 1800–1864.” Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1988.Google Scholar
Carter, Susan et al., eds. Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present. Millennial ed. 5 Vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Google Scholar
Center for American History, University of Texas (Austin, TX).Google Scholar
Chaplin, Joyce E.An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.Google Scholar
Claiborne, J. F. H.Mississippi, as a Province, Territory, and State with Biographical Notices of Eminent Citizens. Vol. 1. Jackson, MS: Power and Barksdale, 1880.Google Scholar
Collings, Gilbeart H.Production of Cotton. New York: John Wiley, 1926.Google Scholar
Columbian Museum [Savannah, GA], 27 March 1798.Google Scholar
Conrad, Alfred H., & Meyer, John R.. The Economics of Slavery and Other Studies in Econometric History. Chicago: Aldine, 1964.Google Scholar
Craig, Lee A., Haines, Michael R., & Weiss, Thomas. “Development, Health, Nutrition, and Mortality: The Case of the ‘Antebellum Puzzle’ in the United States.” NBER Historical Working Paper No. 130, Cambridge, MA, 2000.Google Scholar
Craig, Lee A., Haines, Michael R., & Weiss, Thomas. U.S. Censuses of Agriculture, by County, 1840–1880 [Computer file]. Raleigh, NC: Unpublished files graciously provided by the authors, Dept. of Economics, North Carolina State University, 2000.Google Scholar
Craig, Lee A., & Weiss, Thomas. Rural Agricultural Workforce by County, 1800 to 1900 [Computer file]. Oxford, OH: EH. Net, Miami University [distributor], 1998. Scholar
Dana, William B.Cotton from Seed to Loom: A Handbook of Facts for the Daily Use of Producer, Merchant, and Consumer. New York: William B. Dana & Co., 1878.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Davis, Edwin A., ed. Plantation Life in the Florida Parishes of Louisiana, 1836–1846, As Reflected in the Diary of Bennet H. Barrow. New York: AMS Press, 1967.Google Scholar
Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, The University of Mississippi (University, MS).Google Scholar
Donnell, E. J.Chronological and Statistical History of Cotton. Reprint of 1872 ed. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1973.Google Scholar
Dunbar, William.Life, Letters, and Papers of William Dunbar of Elgin, Morayshire, Scotland, and Natchez, Mississippi: Pioneer Scientist of the Southern United States, edited by Rowland, Eron. Jackson, MI: Press of the Mississippi Historical Society, 1930.Google Scholar
Du Pre, Lewis. Observations on the Culture of Cotton. Georgetown, GA: Elliot and Burd, 1799.Google Scholar
Farmer & Gardener, and Live-Stock Breeder and Manager [Baltimore, MD], 22 December 1835.Google Scholar
Farmers' Register [Shellbanks, VA], June 1834.Google Scholar
Fogel, Robert W.Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.Google Scholar
Fogel, Robert W.The Slavery Debates, 1952–1990: A Memoir. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.Google Scholar
Fogel, Robert W., & Engerman, Stanley L.. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. 1st ed. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1974.Google Scholar
Fogel, Robert W., & Engerman, Stanley L.. “Explaining the Relative Efficiency of Slave Agriculture in the Antebellum South” American Economic Review 67, no. 3 (1977): 275–96.Google Scholar
Fogel, Robert W., & Engerman, Stanley L.. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery: Markets and Production. Technical Papers, 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1992.Google Scholar
Foust, James D.The Yeoman Farmer and Westward Expansion of U.S. Cotton Production. New York: Arno Press, 1975, c1969.Google Scholar
Fryxell, Paul A.The Natural History of the Cotton Tribe (Malvaceae, Tribe Gossypieae). 1st ed.College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1979.Google Scholar
Gallman, Robert E.“Self-Sufficiency in the Cotton Economy of the Antebellum South” Agricultural History 44, no. 1 (1970): 523.Google Scholar
Genius of Universal Emancipation [Mount Pleasant, OH], 30 October 1897.Google Scholar
Georgia Gazette [Savannah, GA], 30 April 1801.Google Scholar
Goldin, Claudia.Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820–1860: A Quantitative History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.Google Scholar
Gray, Lewis Cecil.History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860. Reprint ed. Vol. 2. New York: Peter Smith, 1941.Google Scholar
Halcyon and Tombecbe Public Advertiser [St. Stephen's, AL], ca. 1819.Google Scholar
Handy, R. B. “History and General Statistics of Cotton.” In The Cotton Plant: Its History, Botany, Chemistry, Culture, Enemies, and Uses, edited by Dabney, Charles, pp. 1766. Washington, DC: GPO, 1896.Google Scholar
Hargrett Library Broadside Collection, 1850–1859. Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library. University of Georgia Libraries (Athens, GA).Google Scholar
Hayami, Yujiro, & Ruttan, Vernon. Agricultural Development: An International Perspective. Rev. and exp. ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.Google Scholar
Hemphill, W. Edwin, ed. The Papers of John C. Calhoun. Vol. 9, 18241825. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976.Google Scholar
Hilgard, Eugene W.Report on Cotton Production in the United States. Pt. 1. Mississippi Valley and Southwestern States. Washington, DC: GPO, 1884.Google Scholar
Historic Natchez Foundation (Natchez, MS).Google Scholar
Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (San Marino, CA).Google Scholar
Ingraham, Joseph Hilt.The Southwest by a Yankee. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835.Google Scholar
Kilpatrick, A. R.“Historical and Statistical Collections of Louisiana: The Parish of Catahoula, Part 2” De Bow's Review 12, no. 6 (1852): 631–46.Google Scholar
Lakwete, Angele.Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.Google Scholar
Landes, David S.The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.Google Scholar
Lebergott, Stanley.The Americans: An Economic Record. New York: Norton, 1984.Google Scholar
Lee, Susan P.The Westward Movement of the Cotton Economy, 1840–1860: Perceived Interests and Economic Reality. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.Google Scholar
Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries (Baton Rouge, LA).Google Scholar
Lyman, Joseph B.Cotton Culture. New York: Orange Judd, 1868.Google Scholar
Macon Weekly Telegraph [Macon, GA], 26 February 1835.Google Scholar
Mendenhall, Marjorie Stratford. “A History of Agriculture in South Carolina 1790 to 1860: An Economic and Social Study.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1940.Google Scholar
Metzer, Jacob.“Rational Management, Modern Business Practices, and Economies of Scale in the Antebellum Southern Plantations” Explorations in Economic History 12, no. 2 (1975): 123–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mississippi Republican [Natchez, MS], 2 and 23 March 1814.Google Scholar
Moore, John Hebron.“Cotton Breeding in the Old South.” Agricultural History 30, no. 3 (1956): 95104.Google Scholar
Moore, John Hebron.Agriculture in Ante-Bellum Mississippi. New York: Bookman Associates, 1958.Google Scholar
Moore, John Hebron.The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest, Mississippi, 1770–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.Google Scholar
Moore, John Hebron, and Moore., Margaret D.Cotton Culture on the South Carolina Frontier: Journal of John Baxter Fraser, 1804–1807. N.p.: Privately printed, 1997.Google Scholar
Morgan, Philip D. “Task and Gang Systems: The Organization of Labor on New World Plantations” In Work and Labor in Early America, edited by Innes, Stephen, pp. 189220. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1988.Google Scholar
New York Times [New York, NY], 26 July 1853.Google Scholar
Norse, Clifford C. “The Southern Cultivator, 1843–1861.” Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 1969.Google Scholar
Ohio Historical Center Archives Library (Columbus, OH).Google Scholar
Olmstead, Alan L., & Rhode, Paul W.. “The Red Queen and the Hard Reds: Productivity Growth in American Wheat, 1800–1940.” This Journal 62, no. 4 (2002): 929–66.Google Scholar
Olmstead, Alan L.Cotton Plantation Dataset [computer file], 2008.Google Scholar
Olmstead, Alan L.Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Google Scholar
Olmstead, Alan L. List of Resources Consulted to Construct the Cotton Plantation Dataset. [Web page], 2008. Scholar
Parker, William N.“Labor Productivity in Cotton Farming: The History of a Research” Agricultural History 53, no. 1 (1979): 228–44.Google Scholar
Parker, William N., & Gallman, Robert E.. Southern Farms Study, 1860 [Computer file]. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [producer and distributor], 1991. [Membership required for access].Google Scholar
Passell, Peter, & Wright, Gavin. “The Effects of Pre-Civil War Territorial Expansion on the Price of Slaves” Journal of Political Economy 80, no. 6 (1972): 11881202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Phillips, M. W.“Mexican Cotton Seed” Commercial Review of the South and West 2, no. 4 (1846): 279–80.Google Scholar
Phillips, Ulrich B.American Negro Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966.Google Scholar
Poehlman, John Milton, and Sleper, David Allen. Breeding Field Crops. 4th ed.Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995.Google Scholar
Porcher, Richard Dwight, and Fick, Sarah. The Story of Sea Island Cotton. 1st ed.Charleston, SC: Wyrick, 2005.Google Scholar
Purseglove, J. W.Tropical Crops: Dicotyledons. Vol. 2. New York: John Wiley, 1968.Google Scholar
Ramsdell, Charles W.“The Natural Limits of Slavery Expansion” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 16, no. 2 (1929): 151–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rhode-Island Republican [Newport, RI], 2 November 1814.Google Scholar
Rosengraten, Theodore.Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter. New York: William Morrow, 1986.Google Scholar
Scheiber, Harry N., Vattner, Harold G., & Faulkner, Harold U.. American Economic History. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.Google Scholar
Shlomowitz, Ralph.“The Origins of Southern Sharecropping” Agricultural History 53, no. 3 (1979): 557–75.Google Scholar
Slavery and the Making of America. [Web site]. Washington, DC: Public Broadcasting Service. Scholar
Smith, C. Wayne.Crop Production: Evolution, History, and Technology. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995.Google Scholar
South Carolina Historical Society (Charleston, SC).Google Scholar
South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina (Columbia, SC).Google Scholar
Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC).Google Scholar
Southern Patriot [Charleston, SC], various issues.Google Scholar
Special and Archival Collections, Texas A&M University (College Station, TX).Google Scholar
Stampp, Kenneth M., ed. Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War [Microfilm]. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1985–2000.Google Scholar
Stephens, S. G.“Some Observations of Photoperiodism and the Development of Annual Forms of Domesticated Cottons” Economic Botany 30, no. 4 (1976): 409–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stephens, S. G.“The Origin of Sea Island Cotton” Agricultural History 50, no. 2 (1976): 391–99.Google Scholar
Sydnor, Charles S.Slavery in Mississippi. Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1965, c1933.Google Scholar
The Cultivator [Albany, NY], June 1840.Google Scholar
The New-York Columbian [New York, NY], 12 October 1819.Google Scholar
Thorpe, T. B.“Cotton and Its Cultivation” Harper's Magazine, no. 8 (March 1854): 447–63.Google Scholar
Turner, Joseph Addison.The Cotton Planter's Manual: Being a Compilation of Facts from the Best Authorities on the Culture of Cotton. New York: C. M. Saxton and Co., 1857.Google Scholar
Tyler, Frederick J. “Varieties of American Upland Cotton” U.S. Bureau of Plant Industry Bulletin, no. 163. Washington, DC: GPO, 1910.Google Scholar
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Atlas of American Agriculture. 8 vols. Washington, DC: GPO, 1917–1935.Google Scholar
Vicksburg Sentinel [Vicksburg, MS], 7 July 1847.Google Scholar
Wailes, B. C. L.Report on the Agriculture and Geology of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: State Printer, 1854.Google Scholar
Ware, Jacob Osborn. “Plant Breeding and the Cotton Industry” In U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Yearbook 1936, 657744. Washington, DC: GPO, 1936.Google Scholar
Ware, Jacob Osborn. “Origin, Rise, and Development of American Upland Cotton Varieties and their Status at Present.” University of Arkansas College of Agriculture, Agricultural Experiment Station Mimeo, 1950.Google Scholar
Watkins, James L. King Cotton: A Historical and Statistical Review, 1790 to 1908. New York: Negro Universities Press, (reprint of 1908 edition) 1969.Google Scholar
Watt, George.The Wild and Cultivated Cotton Plants of the World. London: Longmans, Green, 1907.Google Scholar
Wendel, Jonathan F., Brubaker, Curt L., & Percival, A. Edward. “Genetic Diversity in Gossypium Hirsutum and the Origin of Upland Cotton” American Journal of Botany 79, no. 11 (1992): 12911310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wendel, Jonathan F., & Cronn, Richard C.. “Polyploidy and the Evolutionary History of Cotton” Advances in Agronomy 78 (2003): 139–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Whartenby, Franklee Gilbert.Land and Labor Productivity in United States Cotton Production, 1800–1840. New York: Arno Press, 1977.Google Scholar
Williams, Robert W.“Thomas Affleck: Missionary to the Planter, the Farmer, and the Gardener” Agricultural History 31, no. 3 (1957): 4048.Google Scholar
Wright, Gavin.The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton, 1978.Google Scholar
Wright, Gavin.“The Efficiency of Slavery: Another Interpretation” American Economic Review 69, no. 1 (1979): 219–26.Google Scholar
Wright, Gavin.Slavery and American Economic Development. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.Google Scholar