Despite those new hemp-handling tools, which lowered production costs, the demand for high-quality domestic hemp fiber steadily declined after World War I. Kentucky still produced much of the hemp seed and Matt’s Wisconsin mills produced most of the fiber.
Hemp was the fiber of choice for maritime uses because of its natural decay resistance and its adaptability to cultivation. Each warship and merchant vessel required miles of hempen line and tons of hempen canvas, which meant the Crown’s hunger for the commodity was great. Ship captains were ordered to disseminate hemp seed widely to provide fiber wherever repairs might be needed in distant lands.
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Politics and synthetic fibers: Downturn of the American hemp industry
By the mid-1600s, hemp had become an important part of the economy in New England, and south to Maryland and Virginia. The Colonies produced cordage, cloth, canvas, sacks and paper from hemp during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Most of the fiber was then destined for British consumption, although at least some was used for domestic purposes. Ironically, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were penned on hemp paper.
Hemp arrived in Colonial America with the Puritans in the form of seed for planting and as fiber in the lines, sails and caulking of the Mayflower. British sailing vessels were never without a store of hemp seed, and Britain’s colonies were compelled by law to grow hemp.
Along with Missouri and Illinois, Kentucky farmers produced most American hemp until the late 1800s, when demand for sailcloth and cordage began to wane as steam ships dominated the seas. By the end of the Civil War, Kentucky was the only state with a significant hemp industry until World War I, and that state remained the nation’s leading producer of hemp seed.
Shortly thereafter, Robert McCormick (father of Cyrus McCormick, who invented the first successful reaper) patented a hemp fiber-processing device. Through the International Harvester Co., Cyrus’ descendants later contributed additional labor-saving harvesting tools to hemp farmers in the 20th century.
These early hemp plants had very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects.
Marijuana, also known as cannabis or pot, has a long history of human use. Most ancient cultures didn’t grow the plant to get high, but as herbal medicine, likely starting in Asia around 500 BC. The history of cannabis cultivation in America dates back to the early colonists, who grew hemp for textiles and rope. Political and racial factors in the 20th century led to the criminalization of marijuana in the United States, though its legal status is changing in many places.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first federal U.S. law to criminalize marijuana nationwide. The Act imposed an excise tax on the sale, possession or transfer of all hemp products, effectively criminalizing all but industrial uses of the plant.
By the late 1800s, cannabis extracts were sold in pharmacies and doctors’ offices throughout Europe and the United States to treat stomach problems and other ailments.
An ancient Greek historian named Herodotus described the Scythians—a large group of Iranian nomads in Central Asia—inhaling the smoke from smoldering cannabis seeds and flowers to get high.
North America was first introduced to hemp in 1606. Ever since, American farmers grew hemp that was used across multiple different products, such as paper, lamp fuels, and ropes. In the 1700s, farmers were even legally required to grow hemp as a staple crop. Many of our founding fathers grew hemp and advocated its uses and benefits. Notably, George Washington grew hemp on his estate.
The first traces of hemp were found way back in 8000 BCE in Asian regions that are now modern day China and Taiwan. The oldest remnants discovered to date are hemp cords used in pottery and records that show that hemp seed and oil were used as food in China. When you consider that human agriculture started about 10,000 years ago, you can assume that hemp was one of the first agricultural crops.
World Timeline of Hemp
Read about how the government suppressed the USDA film “Hemp For Victory” until its rediscovery by hemp advocates.
Although hemp was a big part of early US history, attitude towards the crop started to change in the early 1900s. When the US government increased its resolve to fight against drugs such as marijuana, hemp somehow got grouped with its cannabis cousin. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 started the major decline of the hemp industry, as all hemp sales started to get heavily taxed on. There has been some controversy over this bill, as some have argued that this policy was aimed to reduce the size of the hemp industry in order to help the emerging plastic and nylon industries gain market share.
Shortly after this program, the U.S. government went back to its original stance on hemp again and the industry continued to decline. Other alternative sources, such as plastic and nylon, were encourages across multiple industries. This led to fewer farmers cultivating hemp and many hemp processors declaring bankruptcy. The last commercial hemp farm in the U.S. was planted in Wisconsin in 1957. Hemp farming was eventually officially banned altogether in 1970 with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in which hemp was included as a Schedule 1 drug, grouping this crop with drugs like heroin and LSD.