This article appeared
in the print version of
Hemphasis that we
published in late 2004.
In 1619, because hemp was such an important
resource, it was illegal not to grow hemp in
Jamestown, Virginia. Massachusetts and Connecticut had
similar laws. During the 1700's, subsidies and
bounties were granted in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New
York, New Jersey, North & South Carolina, and the
New England states to encourage hemp cultivation and
the manufacturing of cordage and canvas.
Unfortunately, these actions failed to establish a
permanent hemp industry in any of these states.
Most hemp used for naval purposes was imported.
During the first six months of 1770, the colonies
imported over 400 tons of hemp from Great Britain,
3,400 tons in 1800, and about 5,000 tons were imported
each year between 1820 and 1840, which compares to the
domestic production in the 1800's, usually in the
5,000-10,000 ton range, except in the 1840s and '50s
when 30,000-plus tons of hemp were annually
In 1839, the Navy's showcase ropewalk in
Charlestown, Mass., used 2,733 tons of hemp: 2,500
tons Russian hemp, 200 tons Manila hemp, 33 tons
American hemp. This quarter-mile ropewalk was
constructed of granite walls and a slate roof that
still stands strong. [Editor's note:
"ropewalk" = a long, covered walk, or a low, level
building, where ropes are
Kentucky first planted hemp near Danville in 1775.
In 1790, hemp fiber was first advertised for sale in
local papers. The hemp industry rapidly expanded and
Kentucky became the industry center for the next 100
years. Most of Kentucky's hemp was grown in the
"bluegrass" region that includes Fayette, Woodford,
Jessamine, Garrard, Clark, Bourbon, Boyle, Scott and
Shelby counties. In 1811, there were almost 60
ropewalks in Kentucky, and by the late 1850's, more
than one-third of the 400 bagging, bale rope and
cordage factories in America were located there. Later
in the century, the production of cordage and bagging
did not prove to be profitable using domestic hemp, so
production was ceased as imported Manila and jute
fibers were substituted.
Postcard scene from 1800s. Hemphasis collection
- Hemp was first grown in Missouri in 1835. By 1840,
the "Show Me" state produced 12,500 tons. During the
Civil War, Confederate Missouri State Guardsmen
advanced behind mobile breastworks made of hemp to
defeat the Union troops entrenched at the Masonic
College, in Lexington, Missouri. The battlefield
grounds can still be toured, and every three years in
September, a reenactment is held.
- Hemp was grown in the eastern part of Illinois
near Champaign and Rantoul from 1875 to 1902. Trial
crops were grown successfully near Houston, Texas in
1899 and 1900. Nebraska's hemp industry existed
between 1887 and 1910 near Fremont and Havelock. In
1910, the areas of hemp cultivation outside of
Kentucky included fields near Lincoln, Nebraska, Kouts
and North Liberty, Indiana, and Hanover, Pa. It was
also being grown experimentally in Michigan,
Minnesota, Iowa and Arkansas.
- California, too, grew hemp in many areas from
around 1900 to around 1920, including Gridley in Butte
County, the Courtland in the lower Sacramento Valley,
Rio Vista in Solano County, and Lerdo near
- The Wisconsin hemp industry began in 1908, when
nine acres were grown in Mendota and Waupun. By 1915,
400 acres were grown and 7,000 acres in 1917. The
leading hemp producing counties in Wisconsin in 1918
were Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Dodge and Racine. Matt
Rens, later known as the "Hemp King," started growing
hemp in Wisconsin in 1914, and continued until 1958.
Rens built several hemp processing mills, and rented
equipment to the farmers to sow and harvest their
- From 1804 through 1929, the average price paid for
hemp fiber was close to or below the farmer's
break-even point. Sharp increases in demand and price
occurred, usually in conjunction with wars; in
European in the early 1800s, the American Civil War,
and the two World Wars. In 1915, 8,400 acreage of hemp
grew in the U.S.: 6,500 acres in Kentucky, 2,000 acres
cumulatively in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and
California. Because of the fiber shortage of WWI,
Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, Kansas, Iowa and
Illinois, increased domestic production of hemp to
41,200 acres in 1917.
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The Shely Fiber Breaker (Scientific American, June 25, 1892)
"Designed to break six to eight thousand pounds of hemp or similar fiber per day.
Takes up to nine people to assist with processing."
Courtesy John Dvorak, hempology.org
Hemp rapidly declined in the 1920's. By 1929, only b600 acres of hemp were being grown in the United States, 140 acres in 1933, and no more than 2,000
acres were grown in any year throughout the 1930's. It wasn't until World War II's Hemp For Victory campaign that domestic hemp fiber was once again in demand as 146,200 acres were harvested in 1943.
From 1892-1916, America used an average of 11,000
tons a year of hemp fiber, evenly divided between
imports at 5,555 tons/year, and domestic production at
5,549 tons/year. This is 4% of the average of 254,462
tons of other imported "hemps" (jute, Manila and
Now, let's compare the hemp figures to "king
cotton." In 1892, 15,911,000 acres of cotton were
grown in America; this increased to 34,985,000 acres
in 1916. From 1892-1916 2.7 million tons/yr of cotton
were produced, 10 times the amount of all other hemp
fibers. Economies of scale gave cotton a price
advantage over field retted, hand broken hemp fiber.
Today, farming cotton uses from 25-50% of the worlds
The dominance of the cotton industry is often
cited as a factor in the demise of the hemp industry.
In 1829, the Navy started making its sailcloth out of
cotton. Ironically, though, 15 pounds of hemp were
needed to properly wrap each 500 pound bale of cotton.
Unfortunately demand disappeared as cheaper jute and
metal hoops became commonplace for wrapping cotton
bales. Several botanical prints of the era recognize
the importance of hemp and cotton.
1903 USDA Yearbook shows that the hemp grown in
Gridley CA was well over 10 feet tall.
Courtesy John Dvorak, hempology.org
The need for "naval grade" (i.e., water retted)
hemp was apparent because mildew and rot-proof hemp
was desirable. As early as 1730, Pennsylvania statutes
required the use of water-retted hemp for cordage. In
1808, the Secretary of the Navy asked for sealed bids
to supply the Navy with water-retted cordage. In 1810,
American Ambassador and future president, John Quincy
Adams, wrote a detailed description of how high
quality water-retted hemp was produced in Russia.
Despite the prevailing knowledge that water-retted
hemp was better suited for naval cordage and the fact
that it generally drew a higher price on the market
than dew retted hemp, few American hemp farmers
adopted the practice. As late as 1913, Dewey noted
that "dew retting is practiced almost exclusively".
While a higher price could be received for
water-retted hemp, there was a limited market for it.
For American farmers of that time, there was a bigger
market for dew retted hemp.
June, 1942, Farm Journal and Farmer's Wife;
"All the hempseed available in the U.S. is stacked
in this Kentucky warehouse under armed guard.
Next year, USDA hopes, there'll be enough
to grow 350,000 acres."
Courtesy John Dvorak, hempology.org
The methods used to harvest and process hemp had a
major effect on the cost of producing hemp. In
general, mechanical breaking and processing machines
were not used, resulting in higher cost per acre and
lower quality fiber. In 1824, the Hines and Baines
Machine for breaking flax and hemp was being used with
great success in Ohio. In 1828, this machine was used
in conjunction with water-retting to produce hemp
fiber "fully equal if not superior in quality to the
best of Russian Hemp." This machine only needed half
of its hurd by-product to power its steam engine,
saving "two cords of wood a day."
- While inventions relating to cotton were
continually modified and improved, the evolution of
hemp machinery lagged. In 1913, Lyster Dewey reported
for the USDA that "more than three-fourths of the hemp
fiber produced in Kentucky is broken out on the hand
break". This lack of progress unquestionably stunted
the growth of America's hemp industry.
This poster (17"x22") was widely distributed
in agricultural areas of the U.S. during WWII.
Another factor affecting the demand for hemp was a
lack of markets. Cordage, twine, and bagging were the
primary items for which hemp was used. As late as
1916, hemp hurds were considered a waste product and
hemp seed was only used as birdseed, not as food.
Jason L. Merrill wrote in a USDA circular that "Our
forests are being cut three times as fast as they
grow." Dewey (his co-researcher) and Merrill knew that
using hemp for paper could prevent deforestation and
help save the environment. Despite the knowledge that
hemp produced a more efficient superior grade of
paper, wood pulp continued as the primary source of
The hemp industry operated under the well known
principles of a capitalist society where supply and
demand determined price. People decided to grow or
process hemp based on the amount of money that they
could receive for it.
But the laws of supply and demand were effectively
thrown out the window starting in the 1930's when the
market wrecking pogrom that is Reefer Madness was
unleashed on an unsuspecting populace. Hemp's association with marijuana undoubtedly caused reluctance in farmers to grow it, while the bureaucratic red tape surrounding the enforcement of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively regulated the hemp industry out of existence, destroying a huge money market in the process!
A map published by the USDA in 1970 shows that hemp
can be grown in almost every state of continental America.
Courtesy John Dvorak, hempology.org
The current demand for hemp fiber is still
relatively low, although new uses for it continue to
be developed. The energy crisis is shining new light
on renewable crops, such as hemp, as a source of
energy. The value of the cellulose rich hemp hurds as
a source of paper, building materials, fuel and animal
bedding is now universally recognized, and the
multitude of nutritional benefits contained in the
hempseed are manifesting themselves in numerous foods
and health care products. However, until hemp can once
again operate in the free market it will not even be
given the chance to succeed.
- John Dvorak is the founder of the Boston Hemp
Co-op, curator and webmaster of the Hemp History
Library and Museum (hempology.org).
He is also the Internet Editor for the Journal of
Fairbanks, E. Compilation of
Articles Relating to the Culture and Manufacture of
Hemp in the United States; selected principally from
newspapers and journals devoted to the interest of
agriculture. Printed at The Farmer's Herald Office by
Jewett and Porter in St. Johnsbury, VT.
Adams, John Quincy. 20th Congress,
1st Session. Doc. No. 68. House of Reps. American
water-rotted hemp, &c. &c. Reports from the
Navy Department, in relation to experiments on
American water-rotted hemp, when made into canvass,
cables, and cordage. p. 11-12. (January 18,
Hicks, Gilbert H. 1895 Yearbook of
the USDA Division of Botany. USDA. Pages 198-199.
Dewey, Lyster H. USDA Yearbook
1901. Pps 541-554.
Dewey, Lyster H. The Cultivation
of Hemp in the United States. USDA Bur. of Plant
Industry Circular No. 57. (May 23, 1910)
Dewey, Lyster H. 1913 Yearbook of
the United States Department of Agriculture. Pps.
1917 Yearbook of the United States
Department of Agriculture. Table 99: Cotton
production, P. 671. Table 200: Hemp, Manila, Jute and
Sisal import. P. 781.
Wright, A. H. Bulletin 293,
Wisconsin's Hemp Industry. Published by the
Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of
Wisconsin. (May 1918)
Clark, Victor S. History of
Manufactures in the United States, Volume I;
Hemp fiber and hempseed acreage,
yield, and production, United States 1931-1949. Annual
Statistics of the USDA. (1950) Table 113, P.
Hopkins, James F. A History of the
Hemp Industry in Kentucky. (1951)