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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Pest panic in the American West : the San Jose scale as change agent in American agriculture, 1880-1900 Blatchford, Barrie Ryne


The San Jose scale – a miniature, armoured, sap-sucking insect which preys promiscuously on all manner of deciduous fruit trees - became one of a host of accidentally-introduced bugs to plague American agriculture in the late nineteenth century, particularly in the West. However, despite its significant repercussions and contemporary prominence, scholars have relegated the scale to passing asides in studies of invasive species, American agriculture, and economic entomology. As such, it has little modern-day popular notoriety nor has it engendered the scholarly attention devoted to other contemporary pests like the boll weevil or gypsy moth. Yet the San Jose scale was a formidable change agent in Western agriculture, and also nationally. Its ravages stimulated the development and expansion of agricultural bureaucracies more than any other single insect, while also sparking numerous quarantine and inspection laws at both the state and national level. Meanwhile, the fecundity and tenacity of the scale forced technological innovation, driving entomologists, inspectors, and agriculturalists to pursue chemical solutions. Thus the scale played a key role in making pesticides hegemonic in American agriculture beginning in the 1890s, and also in the growth of government characteristic of the era. That said, the efforts of officialdom to promote pesticides against the scale ran into opposition throughout the West. I explore this backlash to illuminate both the early history of systemic pesticide use as well as its discontents, subjects which remain understudied. Moreover, the turmoil the scale caused - costing Western farmers millions of dollars in ruined produce, dead trees, and the expense of spraying their orchards – and the apocalyptic, fear-mongering language in which contemporaries discussed it, offers a lens into contemporary mores about nature, suggesting that nineteenth-century Americans understood nature as vulnerable, not endlessly bountiful. Finally, the scale’s depredations pushed some to question the promise of the West as the “Garden of the World,” and the system of industrial capitalism which opened up far-flung markets but also introduced exotic insects. In all this, the rhetoric about the scale serves as a vivid reminder of what Ann Stoler has called the “epistemic anxieties” at the heart of colonial enterprises.

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