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A Brief History of Hemp, Part 1

An illustration of the Cannabis sativa plant from the Vienna Dioscurides, circa AD 512. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Hemp has a deep-rooted history with mankind. For at least 10,000 years, people have been growing hemp for food, fiber, fuel, and medicine. When you consider that this is the same time period that human agriculture began, it makes you wonder if hemp cultivation was at the root of modern human civilization.

The first evidence of humans using hemp dates back to 8,000 B.C. in Asian regions that are now modern-day China and Taiwan. It was also found in Europe, Africa, and South America, where it seems that people back then were using hemp seed and its oil as food, as well as using its fiber in their pottery.

For over 1,000 years before the birth of Christ and until 1883 A.D., cannabis (hemp and marijuana) was our largest agricultural crop and our most important industry. Cannabis produced the majority of our fiber, fabric, paper, lighting oil, and medicines, as well as food and protein for humans and animals. It was also used by most religions as a sacrament. It has even been suggested that cannabis oil was used by Jesus to anoint people and perform miracles.

Why has hemp been so important to human history? Because it can do so much, while taking so little. Hemp is the strongest, most long-lasting fiber on the planet.

Hemp was first introduced to North America in 1606, when American farmers grew it for paper, lamp fuel, clothing, rope, and sails. By 1700, farmers in the U.S. were legally required to grow hemp as a staple crop. In fact, cannabis was legal tender in this country from 1631 through the early 1800s. Why? To encourage farmers to grow it.

At that time in American history, flax and hemp were the primary fibers for clothing and oil. Flax was the preferred fiber for clothing because it was softer than hemp. But growing flax was hard on the land, and the plants were susceptible to disease. It was suggested that farmers only grow flax once every ten crop rotations, as it took so much from the soil. Hemp was often grown right before flax because of its ability to choke out weeds and because it left the soil aerated, richer, and more fertile than before it was grown.

Hemp cultivation was an important cash crop to many during the 1700’s in America. Some of the most notable figures included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson even went so far as to hire Turkish smugglers to buy and smuggle Chinese hemp seeds to be brought back to the United States – a crime that carried with it a death sentence.

In 1797, the naval warship, called the USS Constitution was completed. Aboard the ship was 60 tons of hemp, included in her riggings, sails, anchor ropes, cargo nets, fishing nets, flags, charts, maps, logs, and Bibles. Hemp fiber makes the best rope because it is resistant to rot, and it gets stronger as it is exposed to salt water.

In 1824, there was an experiment conducted Old Ironsides (the nickname for the USS Constitution). Half of her rigging was made with Russian-grown hemp, while her other side was made with U.S.-grown hemp. After 1 year it was noted that the Russian hemp looked better and wore more evenly than the American hemp. Imported hemp was favored by the Navy, while domestic hemp was mostly used for twine and as oakum, which was used as a sealant between the outer and inner hulls of ships.

At that time, hemp and flax fiber were the number one plant fiber crops. But with the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793, hemp fiber production would soon find itself as the second favorite fiber. It would remain as such until the 1930s, when nylon was invented from plastic fibers. In 1776 a cotton shirt cost between $100- $200, whereas a shirt made from hemp would cost between $0.50-$1.

Up until 1883, most of all paper in the world was made from hemp fiber. Our ancestors would take old hemp clothes, pieces of hemp sails or rope, and recycle them into what was known as “rag paper”. This paper was so strong, it was considered the highest quality and longest lasting paper ever made, as it will almost never wear out and is resistant to rotting. Many U.S. government papers were written on hemp “rag paper” until the 1920s. Benjamin Franklin started one of America’s first paper mills using cannabis, which provided us the freedom to produce our own paper and lessen our dependence on England.

Until whale oil took over around 1800, hempseed oil was the most popular lighting oil used around the world. It continued to be second favorite until it was replaced by petroleum and kerosene in 1859.

Hempseed oil is also a highly nutritious oil, which contains the highest amount of essential fatty acids in the plant kingdom. Hempseed is the most complete single food source for human nutrition and was regularly used as food by virtually all cultures in the world up until the last century.

From 1842-1890s, cannabis and hashish extracts, tinctures, and elixirs were the most prescribed medicines in the U.S. for humans, and in veterinary medicine, until the 1920s. The U.S. Pharmacopoeia indicated that “cannabis should be used for treating such ailments as: fatigue, fits of coughing, rheumatism, asthma, delirium, tremors, migraine headaches and the cramps and expressions associate with menstruation.” Queen Victoria found that the local European strain of hemp didn’t help her migraines as well as the “hemp” that was grown in India – apparently, she needed an indica strain with more THC to relieve her pain.

Although cotton had been the fiber king in the U.S. for 100 years, the industry took a major hit after the Civil War. Southern plantations relied on it solely and tried to over-compensate for the falling prices by growing more cotton, which saturated the market even further. There was a lot of talk about the need to diversify crop rotations in the south, but unfortunately for them, hemp doesn’t grown well in southern climates.

It is known that hemp prefers to be grown between the 30th and 45th lines of latitude, generally where corn grows well.

With federal assistance, hemp growing spread through the northern fertile plains into Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and eventually to California.

Hemp was first grown experimentally in Wisconsin in 1908, at a time when hemp production was very meager. Traditionally, the process of extracting the fibers from the stalk was a very labor-intensive job, and this was part of the reason that hemp production was so slow at the time. The most common way to rett hemp fiber was to harvest the hemp plants and to let them “dew rett” in the field. Dew Retting is the process of letting a plant lie in an open field after it has been cut so that the air, dew, sun, and fungi can dissolve the unwanted parts of the plant stalk and reveal the plant’s fibers. This was necessary to extract the fibers, and since it was such a labor-intensive job, many attempts at making a machine to do this had been attempted but failed, that is, until 1917.

In 1917 G.W. Schlichten invented a hemp decorticating machine, which was able to separate the fiber from the stems of the un-retted stems. The resulting fiber was higher quality and brighter color than the dew-retted fiber.

In 1917, the Wisconsin Hemp Order was formed to promote the hemp industry within the state. The key to the organization’s success was due to the mill being centrally located in the state and because they had access to the railroad. By 1920, Wisconsin had more hemp mills than all the other states combined. Wisconsin held the title as the #1 hemp producing state, but California reported the highest yields at 1 ton of dew retted fiber per acre.

Rivaling with Wisconsin for the highest producer of hemp was Kentucky. According to a 1902 periodical, Kentucky was responsible for three quarters of U.S. hemp fiber production. Production reached a peak in 1917 at 18,000 acres, mostly grown in the Bluegrass region, where a hemp variety believed to have originated from China was thriving. Most of the hemp in Kentucky was grown along riverbeds, so when flooding happened here in 1928, it was feared that their seed stock had been destroyed. But fortunately for them, Wisconsin hemp growers had experimented with growing the same variety and had some leftover seed from previous years. But the seeds were several years old, and the germination rate was very poor.

In 1930, there was only 1,000 acres of hemp grown in the United States, but by 1937, there was 14,000 acres grown with a plan to double the acreage grown annually.

At this point it was well known that hemp could produce 4x more paper per acre than trees could, and manufacturing paper from hemp hurd cost half as much as making paper from tree pulp.

Just at this moment in history when it seemed that there would be an industrial revolution with hemp fiber, there was a major blow to the country – the Great Depression.

Keep a lookout for Part 2 of this blog post coming soon!

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