The History of Hemp: Humanity's First Mass-Produced Crop?

Plastic, oil, paper, food, fuel, and clothing.

No, that isn't a shopping list, it's just a handful of the long list of products that can be made from the versatile hemp plant.

Increasingly, people are waking up to the plentiful benefits of the hemp plant and the ways in which it may be used for our benefit.

Hemp is far from a new discovery. In fact, estimates show that humans have been using it for roughly 10,000 years.

From the Declaration of Independence being drafted on hemp paper, to some of the founding fathers cultivating hemp plants for industrial use, hemp has been deeply interwoven into human history.

As a result, we decided to take a dive into the history of hemp.

A plentiful hemp field


What is Hemp?

First things first, let's make a few things clear.

Hemp and marijuana both fall under the umbrella, or genus of Cannabis Sativa – though they are very different.

A Similar comparison would be a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua. While they both fall under the 'Dog' category, they're clearly on opposite ends of the family.

A key difference between hemp and marijuana comes down to THC – Tetrahydrocannabinol.

As many will know, THC is the compound within marijuana that causes users to get "high" and in a typical cannabis plant, one would expect to find THC levels ranging anywhere from 5-30%.

Hemp, on the other hand, typically has THC levels of around 0.2% – not enough to get users high.

So while they may fall under the same family, hemp and marijuana are very different and should be considered as such.


Deborah Colburn, a historic trade interpreter at Mount Vernon, demonstrates the process of turning dried hemp into a pliable fiber for making cloth.


Earliest Records of Hemp

The versatility of the hemp plant seems to have become apparent almost as soon as the plant was discovered. Such early evidence of the plant has suggested to many that hemp may have even been one of the very first plants to have been cultivated on a mass scale by humans.

In Fact, American Astronomer and Astrophysicist Carl Sagan believed the cultivation of the Cannabis plant led to the development of modern civilization as we know it.

The earliest evidence of hemp usage traces all the way back to 8,000 BC in Taiwan, where hemp cords were found in pottery.

Archaeologists also found traces of hemp cloth in Mesopotamia (Now Iran and Iraq) around a similar time period.

In 6,000 BC records show hemp seeds and oil were also used as a food source in China, and in 4,000 BC textiles made from hemp have also been found in the same region.

In 2,800 BC the Egyptian Goddess Sheshat was depicted with a hemp leaf above her head.

And in 2,350 BC it was recorded in the Shu King, an ancient Chinese book, that Chinese soil was filled with hemp, with some cases of hemp being woven into clothing.


Drawn depictions of villagers farming hemp


Beyond food and fashion, hemp even served as a tool for warfare in China, woven into bowstring in for soldiers bows.

These first 4,000 years of proven hemp use were limited almost exclusively to China and parts of the Middle East, before the plant eventually found its way to India.

Fast forward to 200 BC, and China invents the very first hemp-based paper. By crushing the hemp fibers, mixing them with bark and adding water, the Chinese kept their newfound paper material hidden until the 5th century.

For the next millennium, evidence of hemp use is peppered among different cultures, from emperors to shamans, until the plant finds itself in one of the most expensive books ever written: The Gutenberg Bible.

As one of the first books produced with Gutenberg's printing press, the hemp-based book is considered the beginning of popular books printed on hemp and is worth over $25 million.

America's Founding Fathers

The Founding Fathers (And their Fascination with Hemp)

America's Founding Fathers were no strangers to hemp.

It's said that America's introduction with hemp began when Christopher Columbus first arrived. Hemp was the second most commonly used material in making boats. As a testament to this, three of Columbus' boats had hemp sails and ropes when he first arrived in America.

And when it comes to founding fathers, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were all avid hemp farmers.

Thomas Jefferson is said to have had one of the very first patents in the United States for his hemp threshing machine.

Benjamin Franklin produced his own hemp paper for distribution.

Not to mention that the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were also written on hemp paper.


The Banning of Hemp

The banning of hemp is largely credited to three specific individuals; Richard Nixon, Harry J. Anslinger, and William Randolph Hearst.

While many know of the War on Drugs as being the result of President Richard Nixon's campaign in 1973, the demonization of hemp began half a century before.

W.R. Hearst was the owner of the largest newspaper outlet in the 1920s. Not only this, but Hearst also owned an acreage of trees.

It's said that Hearst feared the cultivation of hemp, as it remains far more efficient than the wood-derived paper we know today.

While trees can take up to 80 years to grow, hemp crops can be harvested at just four months. On top of this, hemp contains less lignin and higher concentrations of cellulose – both of which make hemp a much more viable paper source than trees.

Knowing that hemp would pose a serious threat to his industry, as well to his own acreage, Hearst began to publish anti-cannabis propaganda to dissuade people from the plant.

In an attempt to demonize cannabis, Hearst popularized the name 'marijuana' – a popular reference for cannabis to this day – in order to link the drug to Mexican-Americans in a negative light.

Fighting alongside Hearst was Harry J. Anslinger, a politician in the 1930's that used Hearst's platform and shared anti-marijuana sentiments to further demonize the plant.

Anslinger ran the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – which would go on to become the DEA as we know it – and was known for being racist. Using his status and his allegiance with William Randolph Hearst, Anslinger demonized minorities and their use of cannabis.

The pair pushed an anti-cannabis sentiment to the point that they eventually wrote and enacted the Marijuana Tax Act to Congress on August 2, 1937. While the act didn't make cannabis illegal, it made the production and distribution of cannabis, and by association hemp, much more difficult.

This Act also served as the framework upon which Richard Nixon would develop his Controlled Substances Act in 1970, under which marijuana was placed as schedule one.



Trimming a hemp crop

The Future of Hemp

In 2014 US Congress passed the Farm Bill, which allowed institutions and agriculturalists to grow and farm hemp. The Bill has since recently evolved into The Agriculture Improve Act in December 2018. The Bill allows for the legalization of hemp cultivation, distribution, and sale.

Thanks to these recent relaxations of the law, hemp is now being used in over 25,000 products around the globe, and 77,000 acres of hemp were cultivated in 2018.

Clothing companies are beginning to release hemp ranges, athletes are consuming hemp protein, and hemp can even be used as fuel for cars. Some even believe hemp fuel could ease our dependency on fossil fuels, which are worse for the environment.

Though hemp cars aren't entirely new, as in 1941 Henry Ford created his famed hemp-fuelled car.

With regards to the future, the cats out of the bag when it comes to hemp.

The versatility, efficiency, and ease of hemp cultivation make it the perfect crop for production.

In 2018 the hemp market was valued at $390 million, and some estimate the industry will be worth $1.3 billion in 2022. You can also check out our piece on the booming hemp industry here.

It looks like hemp is here to stay, and we're certainly glad it is.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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