A Brief Yet Comprehensive History of Hemp in the United States

A Brief Yet Comprehensive History of Hemp in the United States

The Cannabis Space is Highly Polarized Today

However. it's less known that the plant has over 6.000 years of documented history - and its therapeutic applications appear to have been realized by most cultures. With medical cannabis making a comeback around the world, it's worth tracing the plant's humble beginnings and how it played a vital role throughout the centuries.



Hemp, a versatile and sustainable plant, has played a significant role in the history of the United States. Its uses range from textiles and rope to paper and food, making it an essential crop for both colonial and post-colonial America. This post aims to provide an in-depth review of the history of hemp in the US, highlighting its importance and the various factors that have influenced its cultivation over the years.

Early History

Hemp in Colonial America (1600s-1700s)

Hemp arrived in North America in the early 1600s, brought by European settlers who recognized its value as a cash crop. Several colonies, such as Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, passed legislation requiring farmers to grow hemp due to its numerous applications. Hemp was so important that it was even used as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland.

Revolutionary War Era (1775-1783)

During the Revolutionary War, hemp played a vital role in providing materials for the Continental Army. Soldiers relied on hemp-based products like rope, sails, and uniforms. Founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, advocated for hemp cultivation and even grew it on their own plantations.

Post-Colonial Period

Industrial Revolution (late 1700s-1800s)

The Industrial Revolution brought new machinery that made hemp processing more efficient, increasing its popularity as a raw material. Demand for hemp products grew, and the US became a major producer and exporter of hemp.

Early 20th Century (1900s-1930s)

The early 20th century saw a decline in hemp production due to several factors, including the rise of cotton as a more cost-effective alternative and the introduction of synthetic fibers. Moreover, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 heavily taxed and regulated the production of all cannabis plants, including hemp, which further hampered its cultivation.

World War II (1939-1945)

During World War II, the US government launched the "Hemp for Victory" campaign to encourage farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. The government even provided seeds and subsidies to farmers. However, after the war, hemp production once again declined as imports and synthetic alternatives became more readily available.

Modern Era

Rediscovery and Reintroduction (1990s-present)

The modern era has seen a resurgence of interest in hemp as a sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to synthetic materials. The 2014 Farm Bill allowed states to establish pilot programs for industrial hemp cultivation, and the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, effectively legalizing its production.


The history of hemp in the United States is both rich and complex. From its beginnings as a required crop in colonial America to its resurgence as an eco-friendly alternative in the modern era, hemp has weathered various challenges and changes. As we move forward, it is likely that hemp will continue to play a significant role in American agriculture, industry, and environmental sustainability.




Hemp was considered the first domesticated plant. 

Hemp is thought to be one of the first cultivated plants globally, dating back 6,000 years in China and back to 8000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Turkey). Archeologists have found hemp fibers and seeds at sites in China and near Ankara, meaning the plant had an early use for cloth. Even the famous Chinese herbalist and emperor, Shen-Nung, who lived in the 28th century BCE, used and taught about medicinal ma, the word for “cannabis,” or hemp. Today, China is the world’s largest producer of hemp, which is partly why WAMA sources all hemp in China!

Hemp is stronger than steel.

Wait, is hemp stronger than steel? How is that possible? Okay, you can’t really compare a stalk of hemp to a steel pipe, but when you use hemp plant fibers to create a material similar to steel, it’s 1,000% stronger. I know, I was shocked, too! It gets a little scientific, but basically, you can break down hemp cellulose (plant fibers), create a liquid, and then mold it into a solid. And when comparing that hemp solid to solid steel (using something called tensile strength—how much pressure something can take before it breaks), hemp is far stronger.

henry ford hemp car

Henry Ford made a car out of hemp! 

To further prove that hemp is stronger than steel, did you know that Henry Ford made a car out of hemp? And to validate its strength, he took a sledgehammer to it! Not only was it 10x stronger than a traditional car, but it also weighed 300 lbs less and had 25% better fuel efficiency. Although Henry Ford created his hemp car in 1941, it was never manufactured. But thanks to the 2018 farm bill supporting industrial hemp, the idea has reemerged and many of the biggest car companies use hemp in the manufacturing process, including BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Volkswagen. There’s even an airplane made with hemp!


hemp for victory

Hemp Helped Allies Win WWII

Of all the facts about hemp, this story might be the most interesting! Think back to Henry Ford for a moment. Why wasn’t his hemp car manufactured? One article details the history, as the U.S. government didn’t differentiate cannabis with higher THC levels (the substance that makes you high) with hemp, which has less than 0.3% THC (so there’s no psychological influence). So cannabis and hemp were lumped together and made illegal. But in WWII, the U.S. couldn’t import ship-building materials (often made with hemp) from Japan, so they started a program called “Hemp for Victory.” This allowed farmers to cultivate and manufacture hemp for a short period of time to make things like canvas, rope, and shipping supplies.


hemp levi jeans

Levi Jeans Were Once Made of Hemp!

During the 1850s gold rush in California, Levi Strauss (the man behind the American staple) made pants out of hemp canvas for miners. They were durable, dyed blue to minimize stains, and had riveted pockets to withstand pockets of gold. Perfect for the work, they grew in popularity, and the rest is history. Today, Levi’s takes a page from its origin story and uses a cotton-hemp blend to perfect its Wellthread line. Just one pair of classic cotton denim blue jeans requires over 900 gallons of water, from crop to manufacturing. By using this new blend, the company can reduce its water consumption by 30%.


hemp chernobyl

Hemp Extracted Toxins From Chernobyl

You’ve probably heard about the devastating nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in the 1990s, but what you might not know is that hemp helped clean up the site. Scientists harnessed hemp’s ability to absorb and extract toxins from the soil and neutralize them. And because of this event, the world discovered that hemp could successfully extract lead, cadmium, and nickel.


Founding Fathers

The Founding Fathers Grew Hemp

Although the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act criminalized growing hemp, the plant was quite popular in the 19th and 18th centuries. In a real plot twist, it was actually against the law if you didn’t grow hemp in some places. And to make it even juicier, the Founding Fathers were huge fans. George Washington grew hemp at his Mount Vernon estate and considered it one of his most important plants. Thomas Jefferson smuggled hemp seeds from China and patented one of the first hemp-processing machines. And when it comes to hemp paper facts, Benjamin Franklin is at the center of it all. He owned the first hemp paper mill in the U.S. and sold his goods to Thomas Paine, who then used hemp paper to create his famous “Common Sense” pamphlets against the British. Although not technically a Founding Father, Betsy Ross sewed the original American flag using (drum roll) hemp!


van gogh

 Van Gogh Painted on Hemp Paper

Besides the written word, hemp paper also supported much of the art world, including some of the most famous masterpieces by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and many other early canvas painters. But it wasn’t just the high-archival quality that drew artists to hemp. Hemp seed oil was once a huge producer of paints. One of my favorite facts about hemp is that the United States used over 50,000 tons of hemp seeds to make paint products. And that was just in the year 1935—one year! But, unfortunately, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act stopped this production, and even Sherwin Williams Paint Company was an opponent of this new law.

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