When we think about Cannabis technologies, we typically picture extraction machines or smoking devices … but as the late, great Jack Herer taught us in his classic compendium “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” Cannabis’ most significant technological impact on the world may have little to do with its psychoactive flowers; rather, it’s been the plant’s stalks – better known as hemp – that have helped drive mankind’s progress for millennia.
THE ANCIENT WORLD
It’s hard to overestimate how essential hemp has been to human civilization. Hemp is believed to be one of the earliest plants ever cultivated and the first whose fibers were used to make cloth. Some of the oldest archaeological relics of human history include a remnant of hemp fabric from ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq/Turkey/Iran) dating back to 8,000 BCE, and Yangshao amphorae (pottery jugs) with hemp cord imprinted onto them unearthed in Taiwan from between 4,000-6,000 BCE.
As early as the Stone Age, the Chinese started spinning yarn and weaving cloth from hemp as an alternative to silk. Until the introduction of cotton around the 10-11th century CE, hemp was the dominant fabric used in Chinese society. (In fact, before the 20th century, historians estimate that around 80% of all clothing in the world was made from hemp.)
Ancient Chinese texts spoke of hemp textiles being used for rope, fishing nets, burial cloths, bowstrings, hats, shoes and robes – all corroborated by archeological evidence. The Shu Ching (one of the earliest known books in human history) contains numerous references to hemp – reporting that it was grown around castles in Shantung Province, was often gifted to peasants by royalty and was used to make military attire and weaponry. And the Er Ya – the earliest Chinese dictionary, written between 221 BCE and 24 CE – describes hemp fiber as “strong and soft, able to be spun into cloth” and states that its seeds and oil were a source of food.
In addition to rope and fabric, the Chinese also used hemp to create one of their most impactful inventions: paper. The earliest paper was made by crushing hemp fiber and mulberry tree bark into a pulp, mixing it with water, draining it, placing it into a flat mold and drying it. It’s believed that the first hemp paper mills arose in China and parts of the Middle East as early as the 8th century BCE. The oldest known documents ever written on paper – Buddhist texts dating to the second and third centuries BCE – used this Chinese hemp paper.
EUROPE & THE AGE OF EXPLORATION
In the centuries that followed, hemp spread throughout various cultures in Asia and the Middle East – everyone from the Scythians and the Egyptians (who used hemp rope during construction of the Pyramids) to the peoples of India, Mongolia and Russia. And thanks to the Silk Road, hemp also found its way to the Mediterranean around 1200 BCE. From there, it was traded and utilized by nearly every civilization in Europe – from the Romans, Greeks and Vikings during the Iron Age, and Germany, Denmark and Britain during the Middle Ages. (In 16th century England, hemp was so essential that King Henry VIII decreed that all landowners were required to grow at least a quarter acre of it.)
The crop became especially crucial during the age of exploration and colonization when the kingdoms of Europe began sending out ships in search of new lands and trade routes. Canvas (derived from the word Cannabis) was the preferred material among sailors and shipbuilders since it was three times stronger than cotton, resistant to decay, and could be easily grown in whatever locale a ship might end up in. As a result, hemp was used for the ropes, sails and rigging on most maritime vessels – including those of Christopher Columbus and the Mayflower.
CANNABIS IN THE COLONIES
English settlers first brought hemp to Jamestown in 1606, then to Plymouth in 1620. In 1619, Virginia’s legislature (the House of Burgesses) passed a law requiring all farmers in the colony to grow it. By the mid-1700s, farmers in all of the Colonies were legally obliged to grow it – including founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who later wrote the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper). In the decades leading up to the Revolutionary War, America produced vast amounts of hemp – much of which was grown in Kentucky and most of which was shipped back to Britain. It became such an economic staple in the Colonies that it was actually considered legal tender and could even be used to pay one’s taxes.
Hemp continued to play a vital role in America’s development. One of the nation’s first paper mills, founded by Benjamin Franklin, produced hemp paper. The first warship the U.S. Navy ever built – the USS Constitution, aka “Old Ironsides” – used nearly 60 tons of hemp for its ropes, linings and sails. The tops of all the covered wagons carrying settlers out west during the 19th century were made of hemp canvas, and President Abraham Lincoln used hemp oil to fuel the lamps in his home.
When steamships began replacing sailing vessels after the Civil War, the demand for hemp dwindled somewhat … but the industry continued to thrive, thanks to innovations in its processing.
In 1830, inventor Robert McCormick patented a hemp fiber-processing device he called a “hemp-break” (his descendants—through their company, International Harvester—later introduced other harvesting tools to aid hemp farmers). Next, in 1919, G.W. Schlichten was granted a patent for a machine called a decorticator that streamlined the separation of hemp fibers. And from 1915-1920, hemp grower Matt Rens built a small empire of steam-powered mills that processed thousands of acres of hemp and earned him the title “America’s Hemp King.”
Then, in 1941, automobile mogul Henry Ford unveiled an experimental new car he’d developed that was built almost entirely out of hemp bioplastic and even ran on hemp biomass fuel. Ford considered it the first step in fulfilling his dream to “grow automobiles from soil,” as reported in the December 1941 issue of Popular Mechanics – who three years earlier had declared hemp the “new billion-dollar crop.” Unfortunately, both that prediction and Ford’s dream would soon go down the proverbial drain.
DEATH AND TAXES
Despite its promising future, the hemp industry was all but dead by the mid-20th century, thanks primarily to two factors. Firstly, New European looms and gins made cotton a more affordable fabric than hemp for clothing and the same was true for paper – with production costs of using wood pulp becoming significantly lower than for hemp. (Until 1883, over 80% of all the world’s paper had been made from hemp). Hemp also faced competition from newly invented synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and acrylic, which the petroleum industry spent significant sums lobbying for. Beyond that, though, theories about nefarious plots by tycoons like the DuPonts, Andrew Mellon, and William Randolph Hearst suggested in Herer’s book have never been substantiated.
This brings us to the second factor: In 1937, prohibitionist Harry J. Anslinger finally succeeded in convincing Congress to pass the Marihuana Tax Act – imposing exorbitant taxes and bureaucratic burdens on anyone seeking to “import, manufacture, produce, compound, sell, deal in, dispense, distribute, prescribe, administer, or give away” Cannabis, effectively crippling the hemp industry.
HEMP FOR VICTORY
Of course, one glaring exception to the decline in hemp production is World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, imports of desperately needed hemp and jute from Eastern Asia were cut off. In response, the U.S. Government halted enforcement of the MTA and encouraged farmers to grow as much hemp as possible – even producing a propaganda film entitled “Hemp for Victory” that extols the historical benefits of hemp, conveniently failing to mention its connection to the “evil weed.”
From 1942-1945, around 400,000 acres of hemp were grown in the U.S. But predictably, as soon as the war ended, the authorities went right back to enforcing the Act and even tried to erase “Hemp for Victory” from history. Were it not for Herer’s investigative efforts in the 1980s, the film might have been forgotten forever.
Hemp remained “shadow-banned” until 1970 when the Controlled Substances Act outlawed it outright by making no distinction between marijuana and hemp. The industry remained ostensibly dead until the late 1990s when a handful of activist companies across North America attempted to revive it using imported hemp. Canada eventually lifted its hemp growing ban in 1998, but it took the U.S. another two decades – finally passing the Farm Bill that removed hemp from the CSA in 2018. Today, the American hemp industry is making a comeback and it’s a damn good thing, too: In light of the climate crisis, the need for renewable energy sources and alternatives to deforestation are reminding us how crucial this miraculous plant is to our survival on this planet. After all, as Jack himself once famously prophesied, “Hemp will be the future of all mankind, or there won’t be a future.”