Updated: Jan 20, 2019
In the late 18th century, hemp fiber was grown in order to meet the domestic need for clothing, linen, and rope. An inconsistent supply of seed keep hemp production limited. Subsistence agriculture characterized the developing Kentucky economy, with surplus goods scarce and expensive.
As a result, hemp and hempen goods, were highly valued and regularly used as a means of exchange or trade, like many agricultural products. The Virginia Assembly even passed an act allowing hemp to be received for taxes for “thirty shillings,” and since Kentucky was still a part of Virigina at the time, the same offer was given to those that had settled bluegrass region (Ranck, 2009).
As early as 1784 in Lexington, a half-finished frame building located on the corner of Short and Mill streets fronted on Mill, was purchased for a church, and “mostly paid in bacon, hemp, and corn.” (History of Lexington, page 10). The first newspaper was established in Lexington during 1787 by John Bradford and the following year, he accepted payment for subscriptions in the form of “beef, pork, flour, wheat, rye, barley, oats, Indian corn, cotton, wool, hackled flax or hemp, linen or good whiskey."
Even horses were trade for hemp. In 1789, a Kentucky stock breeder advertised a horse, Tippoo Saib, would "stand the season at his farm in Fayette County" for a fee of forty shillings that could be paid in cattle, tobacco, pork, hemp or butter. Another advertisement offered a thoroughbred horse named Union for sale at thirty shillings or “two hundred weight of merchantable hemp.”
Kentucky Gazette, March 8, 1794 (Kentucky Digital Library)
As the value of hemp increased with the demand for its fiber, so did the value of the exchange. In 1803, the Kentucky Gazette featured three separate advertisements for hemp exchange including; everyday househould goods, property and even donkeys or "a fine large jack ass named Montezuma."
April 26, 1803, Kentucky Gazette (Kentucky Digital Library)
As access to hemp seed became more consistent during the last decade of of the 18th century, the fertile bluegrass region of Kentucky began producing surplus amounts of hemp fiber. This led to an interest in local manufacturing, improved transportation routes and methods, and quality inspections of hempen materials.
Hopkins, J. (1951). A history of the hemp industry in Kentucky. University of Kentucky Press.
Ranck, G. W. (2009). History of Lexington, Kentucky: its early annals and recent progress, including biographical sketches and personal reminiscences of the pioneer settlers, notices of prominent citizens, etc., etc. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger.