The Real Paper of Record

The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp! 


The famed urban legend goes something like this: The wording was drafted on hemp paper, including the draft released on July 4, 1776, with the final text committed to lime-treated animal skin, or parchment, a few weeks later. Most of the delegates then signed the parchment on August 2. Researchers say it’s possible the paper contained a small amount of hemp, but it’s not exactly likely. 

Analysis of a Thomas Jefferson-penned draft suggests it was written on Dutch paper. Europeans often made paper with hemp in the 18th century, but the Dutch typically used flax or linen rags to make paper. Hemp could have been added to the mix for the paper Jefferson used, but there is no evidence to suggest this, and it would likely be a minority amount if it did occur. 

Still, it’s not a stretch to think earlier drafts were written on hemp paper because hemp was a common material for writing and wrapping paper in the 18th century. The sturdy nature of hemp made it an ideal source for producing stocks, bonds, currency, maps, publications and even Bibles. Online sources suggest copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Age of Reason, the Gutenberg and King James Bibles, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and the works of Mark Twain, Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo may have been printed on hemp. Dumas and Hugo, coincidentally, were certainly members of Paris’ infamous Hashish Eaters Club. 

In fact, paper was likely invented using hemp. Made from pounding on hemp fibers, the earliest known paper was coarse and thick and found inside a Han tomb in the Gansu Province of China, dating back to the Western Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BCE. Around the end of the first century CE, a Chinese court official named Cai Lun invented a new form of paper that’s more similar to the writing materials we know today. Cai, considered the inventor of the modern papermaking process, created paper sheets using hemp waste, macerated tree bark and other inexpensive materials. His apprentice Zuo Bo made further improvements to the process, and it spread across Asia from there, eventually reaching Europe in the 13th century by way of the Middle East. 

Until the late 19th century, most paper was reportedly made using hemp, but new papermaking methods emerged that reduced costs by using wood pulp instead of hemp. Wood pulp soon became the substance of choice for making paper, even as scientists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded in 1916 that hemp hurds were superior to wood pulp for manufacturing paper due to its lower lignin and higher cellulose content. The production of hemp paper in the U.S. largely disappeared by the 1940s. 

Is hemp paper set to make a comeback? Maybe. 

Hemp grows faster, contains more cellulose and requires less water than trees, making it a more efficient and environmentally friendly source. Market research shows a multitude of applications for hemp paper — e.g., rolling papers, tea pouches, journals, bible paper, stationery — and expects to see “growth at a rate of 36.8% for the forecast period of 2020 to 2027.” Adding to momentum, the price of wood continues to skyrocket, making hemp an increasingly viable alternative.

Many car companies already use the outer stalk of the hemp plant as an alternative to carbon fiber and fiberglass, and a widespread return to hemp-based paper and stationery might not be far behind. 

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