According to Purdue University researchers, the hemp industry flourished in Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois between 1840 and 1860 because of the strong demand for sailcloth and cordage. Indeed, following the 1776 revolution, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and George Washington reportedly cultivated hemp as a crop on their farms.

From the end of the Civil War until 1912, virtually all hemp in the U.S. was produced in Kentucky. During World War I, some hemp cultivation occurred in several states, including Kentucky, Wisconsin, California, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, and Iowa. The Second World War led to a brief revival of hemp cultivation in the Midwest, as well as in Canada, because the war cut off supplies of fiber.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, hemp was the leading cordage fiber. Until the middle of the 19th century, hemp rivaled flax as the chief textile fiber of vegetable origin, and indeed was described as “the king of fiber-bearing plants,—the standard by which all other fibers are measured.”

The U.S. Marihuana (marijuana) Tax Act applied in 1938 essentially ended hemp production in the United States, although a small hemp fiber industry continued in Wisconsin until 1958.

(See related: California’s growing marijuana business impacting agriculture)

Supporters of industrial hemp as an agriculture crop point to a number of hemp-related facts involving use of the plant in past U.S. history. For one, the U.S. Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. In addition:

  • The U.S.S. Constitution is outfitted with 60 tons of hemp sails and rigging.
  • Abraham Lincoln uses hemp seed oil to fuel his household lamps.
  • In 1916, a USDA Bulletin (No. 404) shows that hemp produces four times more paper per acre than do trees.
  • In 1938, a Popular Mechanic’s article, "New Billion Dollar Crop," explains that new developments in processing technology could use hemp to manufacture over 25,000 different products, "from cellophane to dynamite."
  • Henry Ford builds an experimental car body made with hemp fiber, which is ten times stronger than steel.
  • Between 1942-1946, U.S. farmers from Kentucky to Maine to Wisconsin harvest over 150,000 acres of hemp through the USDA's Hemp for Victory program.