Historic Uses of Hemp (According to MIT)

The Thistle, a progressive newspaper at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explored the early uses of hemp in an article published in 2000. The paper made three major claims (quoted word-for-word below) that highlight what a prominent role hemp played in early society. 

  • Hemp was probably the earliest plant cultivated for textile fiber
  • Hemp is also believed to be the oldest example of human industry 
  • Hemp has been used as medicine throughout the world for centuries

The MIT paper mentioned a hemp cloth found in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iran and Iraq) that dates back as much as 10,000 years, though it says China likely had the longest continuous history of hemp cultivation at more than 6,000 years. Emperor Shen Nung (28th century BC) reportedly taught his people to cultivate hemp for cloth, and China produced the first world’s first paper, which they made out of hemp. France, Spain and Chile have all continuously cultivated hemp for at least 700 years, and Russia was a major hemp grower and exporter for centuries. 

“During the middle ages, hemp became an important crop of enormous economic and social value supplying much of the world’s need for food and fiber,” the paper reported. “Sailing ships became dependent on canvas (from the word cannabis), hemp rope and oakum due to it being three times stronger than cotton and resistant to salt water.” Hemp was so commonplace that, until the 1920s, approximately 80 percent of clothing was made using hemp textiles. 

At one time or another, U.S. farmers produced hemp in nearly every state, but the paper argues that wild hemp likely grew in North America well below the European settlers first arrived. If nothing else, Christopher Columbus carried hemp seeds on his ships. 

Hemp’s decline as a crop grown for fabric started at the end of the 18th century when the mechanical cotton gin made it easier to produce cotton, which would eventually supplant hemp. American inventor George W. Schlichten patented a machine in 1917 that separated hemp’s fiber from its woody core, which could have allowed production to become competitive with cotton again. For whatever reason (many conspiracy theories exist), the new technology was affordable and available in the 1930s, but it was never widely implemented. 

Though cotton took hemp’s place in the fabric industry, other industries became to see its value, and a Popular Mechanics article (written in early 1937, published in early 1938) highlighted its many uses claiming it was on the verge of becoming “the billion-dollar crop.” Per the MIT paper, new taxes on hemp and prohibitions on growing hemp and cannabis (its psychoactive relative) kept this prediction from coming true. Nevertheless, hemp did have a momentary revival during World War II. 

“The 1942 Japanese invasion of the Philippines cut the U.S. off from their major source of imported hemp,” The Thistle noted. “To meet demand for war production, the U.S. and Canadian governments lifted restrictions. Until the end of the war, farmers with special permits grew hemp to supply the war effort. To encourage farmers to grow hemp during this period, the United States Department of Agriculture released the film Hemp for Victory. It stated, ‘In 1942, patriotic farmers at the government’s request planted 36,000 acres of seed hemp, an increase of several thousand per cent. The goal for 1943 is 50,000 acres of seed hemp.'”

After the war, the prohibition on growing hemp returned and remained in place for decades. Certain hemp imports were allowed, but not growing the plants ourselves. At the time the MIT paper published this article, the ban on hemp production remained in place, but this ban was thankfully lifted in 2018. As a result, American farmers can finally start growing hemp again. 

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