You’d never guess it from the last century of American policy. Hemp has been a pretty important plant in human history. The first woven clothing worn by humans came from hemp. Since then, it has proven to be one of the most versatile plants we grow. Modern uses range from homeopathic medicine to protein powder. As of 2018, it’s legal to grow hemp in America, once again, but the path here was a long and complicated one.
How old is hemp?
Humans have grown and cultivated hemp for almost 10,000 years. This is about as long as agriculture itself has been around. Today, we find evidence of ancient hemp products in nearly all parts of the world. Most likely hemp originated in the fertile crescent, the modern day Middle East. It then made its way to China before ending up in Europe and the Americas. The oldest references to the plant come from the Chinese Sung Dynasty. There, farmers grew the crop and learned to weave it into fabric.
Ancient uses of hemp
The oldest evidence of a man-made hemp product is a 9,000 year old baby blanket found in an archaeological site in modern day Turkey. From textiles, it was an easy jump to other hemp fiber items like cordage and rope. It was the Chinese who made the first paper in history with hemp fibers, around 150 B.C. Later on, canvas (derived from the Latin word cannabis, by the way) made everything from sturdy ship sails to art masterpieces possible.
Humans have also always used the hemp plant in much the same homeopathic ways we use CBD today. Ancient humans used the extracts from the seeds and flowers to alleviate ailments ranging from difficult childbirth to insomnia.
Hemp’s history in America
Hemp was in America much earlier than the first Puritans, but the Mayflower was full of the stuff when it landed in the New World. The sails and cordage aboard the ship were all made with hemp. The Puritans on board also carried hemp seed to plant. It was one of the crops first planted in Virginia.
During the Revolutionary War, The USS Constitution, the oldest ship in the U.S. Navy, had 120,000 lbs of hemp fiber on board. And, although it’s not true that the Constitution itself got written on hemp paper, its initial drafts might have been. Henry Ford even experimented, pretty successfully, in the 1930’s with car bodies made with hemp and wheat grass and hemp-based fuel.
Lobbyists strike again
Eventually, Americans began growing cotton. Not long after, the invention of the cotton gin made it the easiest fiber to harvest by far. Hemp, processed stalk-by-stalk, couldn’t keep up. By the time a hemp processing machine similar to the cotton gin came around, hemp was then subject to competition by burgeoning petroleum companies looking to expand into a new synthetic textile industry. For not the first or last time in American policy making, industry lobbyists changed the course of history by demanding an outrageously high tax on hemp producers. From there, it was an easy step to banning hemp altogether in 1937.
During World War II, hemp shone once again thanks to its versatility. The US government temporarily lifted the ban on hemp production, and even encouraged farmers to grow as much hemp as they could, to provide the struggling military with much needed supplies. Hemp was once again used for fabric and rope. When the war ended, the government ushered the plant back to its place of insignificance.
History marches onward
So, hemp has been around for a long time but it’s recent legalization in the US makes it an exciting prospective crop for farmers across the country. With evolving technology, we find new uses for hemp all the time, especially for alternatives to products like plastics and traditional pharmaceuticals. At Arbor Vita8, we dedicate ourselves to helping farmers just starting out in this new (aka old) field of agriculture. Contact us today with your questions about where to start. We’re here to help.