Hemp use dates back to the Stone Age, with hemp fibre imprints found in pottery shards in China and Taiwan over 10,000 years old. These ancient Asians also used the same fibres to make clothes, shoes, ropes, and an early form of paper. Contrary to the traditional view that Cai Lun invented paper in around 105 AD, specimens of hemp paper were found in the Great Wall of China dating back 200 years earlier.

Hemp cloth was more common than linen until the mid 14th century. The use of hemp as a cloth was centred largely in the countryside, with higher quality textiles being available in the towns. Virtually every small town had access to a hemp field.

In late medieval Germany and Italy, hemp was employed in cooked dishes, as filing in pies and tortes, or boiled in a soup.

The traditional European hemp was by tradition and due to its low narcotic effect not used as a drug in Europe. It was cultivated for its fibres and for example used by Christopher Columbus for ropes on his ships.

The Spaniards first brought hemp to the Western Hemisphere and cultivated it in Chile starting about 1545. However, in May 1607, "hempe" (sic) was among the crops Gabriel Archer observed being cultivated by the natives at the main Powhatan village, where Richmond, Virginia is now situated; and in 1613, Samuell Argall reported wild hemp "better than that in England" growing along the shores of the upper Potomac. As early as 1619, the first Virginia House of Burgesses passed an Act requiring all planters in Virginia to sow "both English and Indian" hemp on their plantations. The Puritans are first known to have cultivated hemp in New England in 1645.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both cultivated hemp on their farms. Benjamin Franklin started the first American paper mill, which made paper exclusively from hemp, and the Declaration of Independence was drafted on paper made from hemp fibres.

In the Napoleonic era, many military uniforms were made of hemp. While hemp linens were coarser than those made of flax, the added strength and durability of hemp, as well as the lower cost, meant that hemp uniforms were preferred.

Hemp was used extensively by the United States during WWII. Uniforms, canvas, and rope were among the main textiles created from the hemp plant at this time. Much of the hemp used was planted in the Midwest and Kentucky. Historically, hemp production made up a significant portion of Kentucky's economy and many slave plantations located there focused on producing hemp.

By the early twentieth century, the advent of the steam engine and the diesel engine ended the reign of the sailing ship. The advent of iron and steel for cable and ships' hulls further eliminated natural fibres in marine use, although hemp had long since fallen out of favour in the sailing industry in preference to Manila hemp. The invention of artificial fibres in the late thirties by DuPont further put strain on the market.

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