A Brief History of Hemp: From Ancient Origins to an American Industry

By Sam Gunnells

Quick–when you hear the phrase “America’s Founding Fathers,” what’s the first image that pops in your head? You’re picturing a few no-nonsense gentlemen topped with powdered wigs and draped to the knees in woolen frock coats, aren’t you? You might even have a few familiar faces in mind–George Washington perhaps, or Thomas Jefferson–those same solemn faces stamped across the greenbacks you’ve still got stuffed in your wallet in case of emergency.

What you probably aren’t picturing are the distinctive, sharp-pointed leaves of the cannabis plant. But did you know that both the men mentioned above were known cultivators of cannabis? It’s true. These men weren’t planning to pass around a few pipefuls of the stuff before signing any declarations, though. They were growing industrial hemp, a workhorse of a plant whose many uses gave it a vital place in the everyday lives of the earliest Americans.

Indeed, the Declaration of Independence itself was printed on high-quality hemp paper, and the threads of the earliest American flags were strung from hemp’s rugged fibers. So in 2018, when curators at Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate planted the first hemp crop to be grown there in more than two centuries, they were merely reclaiming a time-honored American tradition. The truth is, though, hemp’s impact on history goes even deeper than that–tracing a route across whole oceans, and backward in time nearly ten thousand years, to the very dawn of the Agricultural Revolution.

Follow us now as we take you on a brief tour through hemp’s storied past

The Agricultural Revolution, Antiquity, and the Postclassical Era:

  • 8000 BCE: The first clear signatures of hemp’s entrance into human affairs appear as cords imprinted on ancient pottery shards from modern-day China and Taiwan and as hemp cloth from ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and surrounding areas). These distant discoveries, showing hemp’s wide dispersal a mere millennium or two after the birth of agriculture, not only make hemp a candidate for the first fiber crop ever grown by human hands; they also point to the plant’s likely importance in the earliest forms of transcontinental trade.
  • 2000 BCE – 800 BCE: Hemp moves eastward from China to the Korean Peninsula and Japan, and southward to the Indian subcontinent by the 2nd millennium BCE. Compilers of the Atharvaveda, a formative Hindu text chronicling important rituals for daily living, anoint cannabis the “Sacred Grass,” one of the five holy plants of ancient India. By 1200 BCE the plant has found its way to ancient Egypt, as evidenced by hemp cloth unearthed from the tomb of Pharaoh Alchanaten.
  • 800 BCE – 200 BCE: A healthy trade in hemp products reaches across Asia, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean. The Scythians, horse-mounted nomads from Central Asia who control the major commerce arteries along the Silk Road, bring cannabis to modern-day Germany around 800 BCE; by 200 BCE Greek historians are noting the plant’s curative properties for earaches, edema, and inflammation.
  • 200 BCE – 500: Ancient Chinese craftsmen first make paper from hemp and mulberry in the 2nd or 1st century BCE. By the year 300, scribes from the Mediterranean Basin to the Japanese archipelago are trusting hemp as a safe-keeper for everything from sacred Buddhist texts to early medical journals.
  • 500 – 1000: Hemp spreads across the Eurasian landmass, to the far corners of modern-day Europe. The Moorish invasions of the 8th Century first bring hemp to the Iberian Peninsula. By the year 1000, hemp is being used for rope and cordage from southern Russia, south to Greece, west to Spain, and northward through the British Isles.
  • 1000 – 1450: Following inroads made by Muslim migrants, hemp traces a route south into sub-Saharan Africa. Portuguese explorers arriving in southern Africa around 1531 note the local Bantu peoples’ reported use of the cannabis plant stretches back 500 years.

The Early-Modern Era and the Colonial Period:

  • 1492: As Christopher Columbus and his crew cast off from Spanish shores to seek a direct sea route to Asia, the ropes and sails of their three ships–the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria–are rigged entirely from hemp fibers. Though Columbus himself would never live to know it, his landmark voyage would link the Old World to the New once and for all, handing hemp a founding role in the European rediscovery of the Americas.
  • Quick aside for your next trivia night: Hemp’s role as an oceangoing staple during the Age of Sail is echoed in the word “canvas,” a Middle-English word derived from the Latin “cannabis” for “made of hemp.”
  • 1533: King Henry VIII of England notes hemp’s commercial potential for a new type of global empire built on far-flung trade networks and powered by naval superiority and mercantile principles. He mandates that English farmers grow the profitable crop to bolster the Royal Navy, and fines them if they don’t.
  • 1606 – 1616: Hemp crops take root at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Early American farmers put hemp to use in a wide variety of roles, from the riggings of their ships and the fuel for their lamps, to the rugged clothes needed to endure the harsh conditions of colonial life.
  • 1632 – 1700: Recognizing hemp’s essential value to the colony, the Virginia Assembly mandates that “ever planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” By the end of the century, farmers all across the colonies are legally required to grow hemp as a staple crop.

Hemp and Early America:  

  • 1776: Hemp lends its strength to two of the founding features of the young American nation–the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Some historians claim hemp’s use in the earliest versions of “Old Glory” is necessary to ensure a product that can withstand the salty sting of a seaborne breeze.
  • 1800s: Reflecting its essential place in the fabric of early American life, hemp is sanctioned as a form of legal tender, while place-names like “Hempfield” and “Hempstead” begin cropping up on American maps of the era.
  • 1841: To stimulate commerce and secure profitable markets for domestic hemp, Congress passes a resolution requiring the Navy to purchase hemp from American farmers. This relationship spurs new technological innovations in hemp processing and manufacturing, including the Hemp Dresser and Decorticator, revolutionizing the American hemp industry.
  • 1850s: The U.S. census registers approximately 8,400 hemp plantations producing at least 2,000 acres each.

The 20th Century–The Best of Times, the Worst of Times for American Hemp:

  • 1916: A U.S. Department of Agriculture report finds hemp is capable of producing four times more pulp for paper manufacturing than traditional lumber sources.
  • 1937: In an about-face that sees hemp getting caught in the crosshairs with its mind-altering cannabis relation, marijuana, Congress passes the Marihuana Tax Act, levying heavy taxes on all strains of cannabis, including hemp. As a result, it becomes prohibitively expensive for American farmers to produce hemp on any significant scale.
  • 1938: A year after the Marihuana Tax Act, with many Americans still struggling to muscle their way out from under the crushing weight of the Great Depression, an article appears in Popular Mechanics bringing new hope for American hemp. The article hails the cannabis plant as the “billion dollar crop” and highlights hemp’s suitability for more than 25,000 industrial products and applications.
  • 1942 – 1945: Imperial Japan’s invasion of the Philippine islands cuts America off from its primary source of imported hemp. With a reinvigorated U.S. economy now running on all cylinders to help its allies overcome the combined might of the Axis Powers, American hemp sees a strong resurgence. While the USDA’s “Hemp for Victory” campaign goes to work reacquainting Americans with the plant’s industrial potential, farmers under the War Hemp Industries program produce 400,000 acres of hemp to fuel the war effort.
  • 1950s: Alas, hemp’s wartime resurgence is not to last. In the wake of the Allied victory, America’s economy again turns its back on industrial hemp. In 1957, the 20th century’s last commercial harvest of American hemp takes place in Wisconsin fields.
  • 1970: Despite hemp’s strong commercial record and decades of government-funded research proving industrial hemp to be unique in form and function from psychoactive forms of cannabis, Congress again targets hemp in an illicit tangle with marijuana. The landmark passage of the Controlled Substances Act makes no distinction between cannabis varieties, listing industrial hemp as a Schedule I drug with the likes of heroin and LSD, effectively prohibiting its cultivation and use across America.
  • 1990s: After decades of legal purgatory, a renewed awareness of hemp’s commercial potential brings with it a rising wave of grassroots and political support for industrial hemp.
  • 1998: No longer able to ignore the growing domestic demand for hemp products, the U.S. government lifts restrictions on the importation of food-grade hemp seed and oil.

The Early 21st Century–A Renaissance for American Hemp?

  • 2004: In a landmark federal court decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court sides with the Hemp Industries Association against the Drug Enforcement Administration in a verdict that puts permanent protections in place for domestic imports and sales of hemp food and body care products.
  • 2007: The first American hemp permits issued in more than 50 years are granted to two North Dakota farmers, bringing renewed excitement for the latent potential of domestic hemp.
  • 2014: In a monumental tide shift, Congress passes an omnibus Farm Bill allowing state agriculture departments and research institutions to oversee pilot research programs for hemp cultivation. As Kentucky, Vermont, and Colorado become the first states to pass legislation establishing pilot programs, a new era dawns on American hemp.
  • 2016: With more states implementing pilot programs, the U.S. retail market for hemp grows to $688 million, and a Colorado hemp farm earns the first Organic certification from the USDA.
  • 2017: A mere three years after the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, the hemp advocacy group Vote Hemp reports more than 25,000 acres of American hemp being grown by nearly 1,500 farmers across 19 different states. In addition, 32 different research institutions are involved in hemp research.
  • 2018: As Congress discusses new measures to remove federal restrictions on hemp, the Council of State Legislatures reports the number of states legalizing hemp cultivation growing to around 40–and inching upward with each passing week. Amidst this mounting support, the Congressional Research Service releases a new report showing a healthy optimism for hemp’s commercial potential, balanced with a frank admission of the uncertainties still shrouding the plant’s future prospects.

The 21st Century and Beyond:

As you can see from this brief hop through time, hemp hasn’t merely helped give shape to the shared ideals of individual liberty and personal enterprise that set the American experiment apart from anything that came before it; rather, hemp’s civilizing effect has roots running all the way back to the earliest agricultural societies.

But how might future historians report on hemp’s contemporary fortunes?

Let’s set all current backward thinking about hemp aside for a moment and recall that it was Mark Twain–perhaps the most quintessentially American of American authors–who said that, “History doesn’t repeat itself–but it does rhyme.” With the weight of ten millennia of human history giving voice to hemp’s strengths as an industrial staple, it would be a fool’s bet indeed to think the resume of this multi-talented plant will sound any less impressive after another ten thousand years of hard work.

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