The History Of Hemp

Historians say, and archaeologists have confirmed, that humans have been cultivating Cannabis for over 10,000 years.  The vast majority of Cannabis that has been grown and consumed the world over, has been of the variety known as Hemp, or Industrial Hemp, which does not get you “high” or “stoned” or intoxicated in any way.  Scraps of hemp cloth have been found that date back to 8000 B.C. Originating in the area of the world that is now China and South Russia, Hemp was probably the first plant to be cultivated by humans for use in textile fibers.  Since then, right up until the 20th century, Hemp has played an important role in the survival and development of mankind.  And now, after a relatively short “prohibition” period in most of the world, Hemp is making a comeback.

     In ancient China hemp cultivation was widespread and used to make many things.  In addition to using the unique fibers in textiles, rope, and pottery, archaeological evidence has been discovered showing that Hemp seeds were used for oil and food.  From 5000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. the Yangshao had an economy driven by Hemp.  The Chinese developed paper made entirely from Hemp in about 150 B.C.  China did not abolish or abandon the cultivation of Hemp in the 1900s, even when most other countries did.  Today China is the worlds largest producer of Hemp.

     Cannabis first appeared in Europe around 1200 B.C.  As civilization expanded and progressed, Hemp grew to become one of the most valuable crops and was very important to the world economy.  Queen Amegunde, one the first Queens in France, was ceremoniously burned in hemp cloth upon her death.  Throughout this time period, right up until the 19th century, 80% of clothing was made from the fibers of hemp. Even though its seeds had made their way across Europe, and it was being cultivated in nearly every small town, there was still a great demand for international supply.  The Southern region of Siberia produced the highest quality fiber and most European Hemp was purchased from Russia

 It was also during the first millennium B.C. when man began building great ships and took to the seas.  Shipping not only allowed for human expansion and exploration.  It also played a vital role in the world economy.  Powerful Nations and Empires were built and destroyed based solely on the strength of their naval forces. 

  • 480 B.C. Greece defeated the Persians in the famous battle of Salamis, that saved them from annihilation
  • 241 B.C.  Roman Republic defeats Carthage.  After 20 years of brutal war, the destruction of the Carthage’s fleet was so decisive that it forced the Generals to agree to very harsh terms of surrender.
  • 31 B.C.  Octavian (who would later be known as the Emperor Augustus) employs great naval strategy to defeat Marc Antony (Cleopatra’s lover).  This classic battle leads directly to the downfall of Cleopatra. 

Perhaps no other area of our history was more dependent on the Cannabis plant than shipping/sailing.  Every seaworthy vessel had to have ropes and sails that could stand up to the worst Mother Nature could offer.  And no other fiber was as strong and durable as Hemp.  From these early times, all the way up until 19th century steam powered ships were developed, 90% of all sails were made from Hemp.  Many other vital components of shipping such as various sizes of ropes, lines, cargo netting, fishing nets, water sealants, and protective coatings were all made from the stalks and seeds of the Hemp plant. 

   As the ancient era transcended into the middle ages Hemp continued to be an important crop with significant economic and social value.  Many medieval recipes call for the versatile and easily stored hemp seed. This delicious and highly nutritious seed was regularly used to make porridge, soups, and gruels.  It was also a key ingredient in pie fillings and cakes. Hemps’ long fibers made fine paper that is strong, mildew resistant, repels insects, and doesn’t fade due to light. Hemp paper was the preferred choice for making maps, and books. Most early Bibles were printed on this superior paper.

  The qualities of the lustrous hemp fiber made it the finest material for artists to work with.  All of the greats from Da Vinci to Van Gogh left oil paintings (Hemp seed oil) on skillfully crafted canvas (the word canvas is derived from “cannabis”).  Many of these works of art have stayed in fine condition for hundreds of years.  

In 1535 Henry VIII made a decree for all landowners to sow at least ¼ acre of hemp in an effort to reduce dependence on foreign imports.  A steady supply was required to build the powerful and far reaching naval force.  It’s been estimated that the English fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 represented about 10,000 acres of hemp.

    When Europeans first arrived in North America, they brought Cannabis with them. There is extensive evidence that the Vikings had hemp seeds and materials in Norway around 650-800 A.D.  The Spanish brought hemp with them on their North American expeditions in the 1500s.  In 1607 the British founded Jamestown in what would become Virginia.  Hemp was so important to the British that starting in 1619, Jamestown settlers were required by colony law to grow hemp.  Similar laws were passed in Massachusetts in 1631 and in Connecticut in 1632.  While Hemp was being grown in all of the new colonies, it was Virginia that produced the most.  By the mid 1700s Virginia had 12,000 acres in cultivation.  Hemp was as good as cash in the colonial days.  From 1631 until the 1800’s you could even pay your taxes with it!

     During the 1700s the British parliament rewarded bounties and offered subsidies to farmers that produced quality hemp fibers.  Despite these efforts to become less dependent on imported Hemp, Russia is still the worlds’ largest exporter of industrial grade Cannabis and Great Britain imports more from Russia than any other country.

     As the dawning of America was on the horizon, many of our founding fathers had close ties to the valuable and versatile plant:

  • Benjamin Franklin started the first American paper mill in Williamsburg, Va. in 1742-1743.  The mill produced paper from rags made of Hemp. In the summer of 1752 he made important discoveries with electricity by famously flying a kite made of silk with a cord made of Hemp during a thunderstorm.
  • Thomas Jefferson bred hemp and worked on developing improved varieties.  He also invented a brake for crushing the stalks during processing.  The future president directed “an acre of the best ground” to be reserved for a permanent patch of Hemp at his Poplar Forest estate.  Jefferson also noted that hemp “is abundantly productive and will grow forever on the same spot” unlike other crops which deplete the soil an must be rotated.
  • John Adams grew hemp and was an outspoken public advocate for industrial hemp. 
  • George Washington also encouraged also encouraged everyone to sow hemp widely.  Hemp was one the top 3 most cultivated crops at Mt Vernon 
  • The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper (most paper of the day was made from hemp fibers)
  • Betsy Ross embroidered the very first American Flag out of cloth made from hemp.  

     With the outbreak of the revolutionary war, the supply of hemp became vital to the American colonies.  The Army needed the fibers for uniforms and tents, and the navy simply could not exist without it.  In addition to the Continental Navy, there were 11 State sponsored fleets.  One typical ship would require more than 2 miles of cordage.  Growing hemp was now considered to be a “Patriotic Duty”.  During the war there were at least 4 hemp mills in Virginia.  By the end of the war Virginia had some 20,000 acres of land dedicated to producing as much as 5,000 tons of retted fiber per year.  

     Once the United States gained independence and the smoke cleared from the battlefields, Americans began the epic westward expansion.  Rich fertile ground was soon found in Kentucky that was ideal for cultivating hemp.  Kentucky soon replaced Virginia as the State with the most tons of fiber and seeds produced annually.  By 1835 Hemp had made it as far west as Missouri.  In 1840 the “Show Me State” produced 12,500 tons of fiber.  In 1850 the U.S. census reported that there were 8327 Hemp plantations in America.

     In the 19th century Hemp seed oil was the second most used oil for lamps and lanterns.  While whale oil fuel was the most purchased lighting oil, Hemp seed oil was the brightest.  Abraham Lincoln was known to use this readily available oil in his lamps.  (He was, of course, born in Kentucky) 

     Hemp also spread to Central and Western Canadian Provinces during the 19th Century.  In 1801 hemp seeds were distributed to farmers by the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.  In 1822, the Canadian government budgeted money specifically for the purchase and maintenance of machinery to process industrial cannabis.  By the early 1900s Canada had 6 hemp mills operating.  In 1923 the government offered incentives to domestic producers.  

For the first time in the history of cloth, hemp had competition in the 1800s.  This was the era when cotton became king.  Processing the tough stalks of hemp was always very hard work.  The invention of the cotton gin made it difficult for hemp to compete.  1n 1829 The U.S. Navy began using cotton for its sails.  And many other products that had traditionally been made from hemp were now being made from cotton.  (Today as much as 50% of pesticides and herbicides in the world are used to grow cotton)

     Even with the rise of cotton there were many products that still demanded the toughness and durability of the superior hemp fiber.  The horse drawn wagons that carried countless people and goods across the west, and had to withstand the extremes of nature, were covered in canvas made from hemp.  The tents that housed many workers in various mining camps all over the West were made from hemp.  It was this tent material that was used by Levi Strauss to create pants that could be worn my miners during the gold rush in San Francisco.  The miners loved their “Levis” pants for their strength and durability in rugged working conditions.

     As America headed into the 20th century, Hemp was being commercially grown many States including Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois, Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Arkansas, Iowa and California.  Even with all those acres of hemp, the U.S. still imported more hemp than was produced domestically.  Hemp was being grown in most of the countries in the northern hemisphere, and it was still an important commodity in the world economy.  Most of the worlds hemp supply still came from Russia and East Asia.

     There were many great advancements and achievements in technology in the 1800s.  There were now 45 stars on the American flag.  The Industrial revolution had taken place.  Steam replaced sails.  You could travel all the way across the country on rails.  The telephone was introduced.  Oil was discovered in the newly settled west, and advancements in drilling had made it possible to tap into this profitable resource.  Vast amounts of wilderness were available to a logging industry eager to supply the rapidly growing nation with an endless demand for consumable paper products.  With the rise of Cotton, Big Oil, and a Massive Logging industry, Hemp lagged behind in American interest and investment.  As a result of many factors growing hemp in America was just simply not a profitable business.  

     With the onset of World War I there was a spike in U.S. Hemp production.  In 1915, 8,400 acres of industrial hemp was grown in the U.S. (mostly in Kentucky).  To help supply fiber to the war effort, Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois, planted enough cannabis to bring that total to 41,200 acres in 1917.  When the war was over hemp production in the U.S. plummeted.   There were more profitable crops for American farmers to grow.  The hemp products that were still in demand by the U.S., as well as the rest of the world, were mostly made from Russian or Asian hemp.

     In the 1930s,  there was a controversial campaign against Cannabis in America. The term “marijuana” appeared and was associated with the “dangerous drug” portrayed in REEFER MADNESS.  This Campaign was supported by some businessmen in the world.  In 1937, amidst this pressure, the federal government passed the “Marihuana Tax Act”” which prohibited all parts of the Cannabis Sativa plant, and gave control of Cannabis to the IRS.  Industrial hemp was caught under the umbrella of this act.  While growing hemp was still legal to grow with the proper IRS permission, only a few farms in Wisconsin and Kentucky continued to cultivate hemp.  Ironically in 1938 hemp was named The New Billion Dollar Crop by Popular Mechanics for the wide variety of USES HEMP PROVIDES.  Despite the usefulness of hemp, many other nations also succumbed to political pressure and passed similar laws against cannabis.  

     In World War 2 the demand for hemp became an important issue to the war effort.  Japan had taken over control of most of the Asian hemp and therefore cut off  trade.  The U.S. and Canada lifted their bans.  The U.S. government ran a campaign aimed at domestic hemp production.  View the propaganda film Hemp for Victory.  400,000 pounds of cannabis seeds were supplied by the U.S. government to farmers in Kentucky, Wisconsin, and a few other states.  Participating farmers, and their sons, were excused from military service.  These farms produced over 40,000 tons of hemp fiber per year.  After the war North American hemp production was ceased again.

     Throughout the rest of the 20th century hemp remained obscure and much maligned, as petroleum products and countless other synthetic products dominated the world economy.

 2000 – Beyond

     The new millennium has seen a renewed interest in this historic plant.  Americans have rediscovered the amazing health benefits of Hemp seed.  Environmental awareness and pollution issues have also lead Americans to take another look at the practical advantages of this timeless resource.  The U.S. has in fact become the largest consumer of Hemp, most of which is supplied by China.  Canada legalized growing Industrial Hemp in 1998.  The Federal Farm Bill of 2014 allowed U.S. states to set up pilot programs to grow hemp.  27 states have enacted some type of legislation towards growing Hemp.  Each year there is more and more Hemp being harvested in North America.  

     Not only is Hemp being seen again as a nutritious food source and an environmentally friendly resource for textiles and other traditional products.  New discoveries are being made and new products developed that are opening doors to the future for Hemp.  This miracle plant is being utilized in some of the most advanced cutting edge technologies of today!.

This article (The History Of Hemp) has been collated from The Daily Blog page which operates under a Creative Commons license. Excerpts of this material created by Galactic Connection may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Alexandra Meadors and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Information from the Daily Blog may be re-distributed as long as proper attribution to the author and direction to their original content is provided.  

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