The History of Hemp

If you’re jumping of the newest trend train by purchasing hemp and CBD products, you may be surprised to know that they’re not new at all. In fact, it is well documented around the world that the earliest evidence of hemp use according to Carbon testing dates points to the year 8,000 B.C. That was B.C., in case you missed it! This means hemp may possibly be one of the very first plants to be cultivated. The earliest uses probably took place in China, where hemp imprints were first found on pottery, and the plant was later used to make rope, clothing and shoes, as well as paper. The first evidence we have that hemp was used for medicinal purposes was reported by Herodotus, a Greek historian, around 480 B.C.


Similar to bamboo, hemp is one of the fastest growing plants on Earth. It’s also highly versatile, making it a real cash crop. Besides the clothing, rope and paper already mentioned, hemp can also be used to make insulation, paint, biofuel, biodegradable plastics and animal feed. It’s edible for human consumption too and is an excellent source of plant protein!


Henry VII recognized hemp’s potential in the 16th century and incentivized farmers to plant the crop by fining them if they declined. King Henry VII needed a surplus of the plant to provide materials for the construction of battleships for the British Navy. Components such as riggings, pendants, pennants, sails, and oakum (a substance used in packing and caulking the gaps between the timbers) were all made from hemp fiber and oil. Maps and logs were made from hemp paper also. I think it’s safe to say that old King Henry VII was a big fan of hemp!


In the 1600s North America got on the bandwagon and by the 1700s, colonial American farmers were being ordered by their British governors to grow hemp as well. These laws led to a common practice of using hemp as currency to pay taxes. In fact, hemp was such a staple in early American life that towns like Hempstead NY, Hemphill KY and Hempfield PA derived their names from the crop. In an almost comical twist of fate, it is surmised that the United States Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper.


Advances in technology made hemp harvesting easier and more streamlined, and by 1896 when Rudolph Diesel produced his famous engine, production of hemp was a well-oiled machine. Like others of his time working to create new and more efficient machinery, Diesel envisioned that his engine would be powered by a variety of fuels, including vegetable and seed oils. Recognizing the potential for biomass fuels, Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company began producing hemp fuel in his successful biomass conversion plant, the Iron Mountain facility in Michigan. At this point competing industries began to view hemp as a threat and created smear campaigns such as the film Reefer Madness meant to associate hemp with marijuana and ultimately led Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The regulations made hemp cultivation in America nearly impossible and the crop quickly declined.


However, when the attack of Pearl Harbor during World War II halted the importation of hemp from the Philippines, government made a call out of the age-old wartime playbook and the USDA released the film Hemp for Victory as a call to arms asking American Farmers to patriotically support the war effort by growing hemp for fiber and rope to again supply the US Navy. Between 1942 and 1945 over 400,000 acres of hemp were planted across the American Midwest and Southeast due to the US government program; but when the war came to its end, so did the hemp industry once more.


After 1945 restrictions on hemp became tighter and tighter, until 2004 when the US government recognized hemp’s medicinal qualities and allowed dietary hemp products to be imported. Then in 2007, two lonely pioneering North Dakota farmers were granted licenses to grow hemp. This led to a legal battle that fed the 2014 Federal Farm Bill which allowed hemp cultivation at a state level. The next year the Industrial Hemp Farming Act was introduced at a federal level and on December 20, 2018 the Federal Farm Bill was signed, once again legalizing industrial hemp.


It has been said many times that history repeats itself and the historical hemp journey has definitely been a long and winding road, driven by politics. Hopefully, hemp will continue to be recognized for its many health benefits as well as its industrial uses and positive environmental impacts on the farming industry. May this current reign of hemp be long and prosperous.

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