History of Hemp Part 1 | Pre-1900 Hemp Uses
It would be an understatement to say that up until the early 20th century, hemp was one of humanity’s most important crops. The history of the hemp plant is filled with incredible and widespread uses, which invalidates today’s stigma surrounding this crop. Let’s take a look at the history of the hemp plant and all of its applications before the 1900s.
What Is Hemp?
Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa L. — a close relative to marijuana — known for a multitude of uses throughout history. In the modern age, hemp’s popularity skyrocketed after it was discovered that its main component, cannabidiol (CBD), offers an array of benefits that support our wellbeing. Another contributing factor to the rise of the hemp plant is its low delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels. Hemp contains low levels of THC, which is the psychotropic compound in cannabis that interacts with the brain’s receptors to produce a “high.”
Despite the likelihood that hemp cultivation was humanity’s first industry, today, the plant is a tightly regulated legal crop whose plant parts (mainly smokable flower) are still prohibited for use in some U.S. states. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 grouped hemp with marijuana and hemp production for commercial purposes was banned by late 1937. One of the reasons for the ban was the anti-hemp propaganda that led citizens to falsely believe that hemp and marijuana were the same plant and that it would make people crazy. The driving force of the propaganda was racism against people of color, persuading white Americans to believe that consuming marijuana would lower their moral values. After a 80-year hiatus, hemp became legal in the United States with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Let’s take a look at the hemp history timeline.
8000 BCE — Discovery of Hemp Fiber
There is evidence that hemp fibers were likely first used at this time. Archeologists in Taiwan uncovered a remnant of hemp strands in pottery, dating from 8000 BCE. Just to put this into perspective, the production of linen and cotton began 3500 BCE and 2500 BCE, respectively. Archeologists also found traces of hemp cloth dating from around the same period in Mesopotamia — today’s Iran and Iraq.
2000 BCE - 800 BCE
According to Atharvaveda, a sacred Hindu text, hemp is a “sacred grass” and one of India’s sacred plants. It is believed that hemp arrived in Europe in 1200 BCE.
600 BCE - 200 BCE
Northern Europe continued to use hemp between 600 BCE and 200 BCE. Archeologists have discovered hemp rope in Russia and Greece, as well as hemp seeds and leaves in Germany, dating back to this time period.
Ancient Greece transported hemp from France to make rope for ships.
150 BCE — World’s First Hemp Paper
The hemp revolution during ancient times left writing on stone, wood, bamboo, and parchment behind it for good. It is believed that the Chinese produced the world’s first paper entirely from hemp in 150 BCE. The oldest surviving piece of hemp paper is a Buddhist text dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD. But, despite the evidence that hemp paper appeared before the common era, legends attributed the invention of hemp paper to the Chinese bureaucrat Ts’ai Lun. Allegedly, the inventor Lun revealed the new product in 105 AD. In an effort to increase the product’s popularity, he claimed that burning hemp paper could raise the dead.
Hemp ropes found in England date from 100 AD. England did not cultivate hemp until 400 AD, so until then, they imported hemp for the production of hemp cords.
When hemp began to be consumed as food is unknown, but Galen (130-200 AD.), a physician in the Roman Empire, mentions that Romans enjoyed a hemp seed dessert.
The French queen Arnegunde was buried with gold, jewels, and a hemp cloth, which may suggest that, at the time, hemp enjoyed royal status.
Vikings used hemp ropes and took hemp seeds with them to Iceland as early as 850 AD.
The method by which hemp paper was produced was held a secret for hundreds of years by the Chinese. But, it eventually spread to Japan, and the Arabs learned it in the 900s AD.
Venice was known for its high-quality production of hemp fibers and ropes. Italian ships were outfitted with hemp fibers and ropes and dominated the oceans. The laws for growing and producing hemp were stringent in Venice, where poor products were kept at bay with harsh fines and beatings.
Hemp and North America
Hemp was pivotal for economic and social development as it met the world’s demand for food and fiber. By the 1500s, England’s navy needed hemp rope because it is three times stronger than cotton and has great resistance to saltwater.
King Henry VIII passed an act that required every farmer to grow hemp. Farmers who opposed it paid a fine. Later on, the king’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth the I increased the penalty, but to no avail. Farmers preferred to pay a fine than raise hemp because cultivating it brought in little income and has a strong smell when decomposing. Starting from this era to the 1920s, approximately 80% of clothing was made from hemp.
1600s - 1800s
The unwillingness of local English farmers to grow hemp led to the crop being transported from Russia. But, Russians allegedly had a reputation for bad business practices. To decrease the dependence on hemp from Russia, England commanded the American colonies to grow hemp.
Hemp existed in North America before the arrival of the Europeans. The first permanent English settlement in the Americas, Jamestown, grew hemp for ropes, clothing, and sails. When shipbuilding started in Massachusetts in 1629, merchants started purchasing every stalk of hemp available. By the 1700s, all colonies used their locally-grown hemp for oil, clothing, rope, and sailcloth.
In 1776, the United States Founders wrote early drafts of The Declaration of Independence on none other than hemp paper. Until the late 1800s, Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky farmers produced the most hemp and it was also used to produce oil.
Hemp has been around for thousands of years, helping humanity survive. After the 1900s, the government deemed hemp a controlled substance and we’ve been missing out on all of its potential benefits. In 1937 hemp was banned as new manufacturing industries were entering the market including cotton, timber and synthetic plastics. The other factor at play was the influence of Harry J. Anslinger, who was an anti-cannabis prohibitionist and the first director of the then Federal Bureau of Narcotics. We explain how it all unraveled in Part 2 and Part 3 of our series on History on Hemp.
It’s important to overcome the stigma around this miracle plant once and for all, and use this versatile and natural resource for a better, cleaner future. KannaCBD offers full-spectrum, non-GMO, hemp-derived CBD products rich in naturally-occurring cannabinoids and terpenes. If you are a North Carolina CBD enthusiast, consider our customer-favorite Clarity 1000mg CBD Oil, perfect for daytime use.
Earleywine, M. (2002). Understanding marijuana: A new look at the scientific evidence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.