History and Hemp. Old Dogs, Not so New Tricks.

Pam Trapp

The chances are pretty significant that you have recently heard of hemp because of government deregulation in late 2018. The industry is booming and contributing to the US economy in many ways. From textiles to housing materials, cannabinoid supplements, and dozens of other uses, Americans are finding more ways to appreciate this versatile plant. There is even conjecture that hemp could be the answer to our plastic pollution problems, with the ability to replace plastic in every way. But did you know that hemp has a long history of supplying the world with beneficial products? Its’ history is fascinating and diverse despite being banned in the “Land of the Free” since 1937.

As it turns out, history shows that hemp was the earliest plant cultivate for textile fiber. In what are currently Iran and Iraq, then ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists discovered a remnant of hemp cloth which dates back to 8000 BC. It’s also believed to be the oldest example of human industry. Emperor Shen Nung, in the 28thcentury BC taught his people to cultivate hemp for cloth. Hemp first showed up in Europe in 1200 BC and subsequently spread throughout the ancient world. Cool.

China has cultivated hemp for over 6000 years. They were the first to utilize hemp for paper making. In 150 BC, they developed the world’s first paper, entirely from hemp. France has grown for over 700 years, right up to the present day. Spain and Chile and Russia have been growers and suppliers for upwards of hundreds of years. The world’s oldest documents on paper are Buddhist texts from the 2ndand 3rdcenturies AD. In 1535, in the United Kingdom, Henry VIII made a law requiring landowners to sow ¼ of an acre of hemp of face a hefty fine.

Hemp was grown prolifically throughout North America before Europeans arrived. Jacques Cartier referred to it in his texts in the 16thcentury. It was grown in almost every state at one time or another and was a potent part of our food supply, ingested by livestock and adding to wellbeing through consumption. From the 1500s right up to the 1920s hemp was a major crop and 80% of clothing was made from hemp textiles.

In the middle ages, from the 5thto the 15thcentury, hemp proved itself to be an important commodity of substantial economic and social value. It supplied much of the world’s need for food and fiber. Interestingly, sailing ships used it as a resource for canvas (from the word cannabis) and hemp rope because it was 3x stronger than cotton and resistant to salt water. (1)

In the 1930s in North America, Hemp became the victim of propaganda generated by DuPont and powerful newspaper and lumber magnates who saw their fortunes being jeopardized by this valuable plant. DuPont was in the process of patenting their new “plastic fiber.” In other words, petroleum based synthetic textiles. (Oh the value of hindsight!) In the February 1938 edition of Popular Mechanics Magazine, hemp was understandably touted as the next billion-dollar industry (2):

Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the wood "hurdes" remaining after the fiber has been removed contains more than seventy-seven percent cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to cellophane. 


Fish nets, bow strings, canvas, strong rope, overalls, damask tablecloths, fine linen garments, towels, bed linen and thousands of other everyday items can be grown on American farms. Our imports of foreign fabrics and fibers average about 200,000,000 per year; in raw fibers alone we imported over $50,000,000 in the first six months of 1937. All of this income can be made available for Americans.

But alas, in 1937, big business, who saw hemp as a huge threat, stepped in and lobbied the US government to draftprohibitive tax laws. An occupational excise tax was levied upon hemp dealers and later that year hemp production was banned entirely.

During WWII the hemp ban was lifted and a “Hemp for Victory” film was issued by the US Department of Agriculture to encourage farmers to grow hemp.

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.”(3)

Sadly, the ban on growing hemp remained after the WWII. Having over 25,000 diverse uses ranging from paints, printing inks, varnishes, paper, Government documents, bank notes, food, textiles (the original ‘Levi’s’ jeans were made from Hemp cloth), canvas (artists canvases were used by the great masters) and building materials still remains banned in this country whose Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. With modern technical developments, uses have increased to composite boards, motor vehicle brake and clutch pads, plastics, fuels, bio-diesel and Eco-solid fuel. In fact, anything that can be made from a hydrocarbon (fossil fuel) can be made from a carbohydrate, but the strong lobbies still manage to keep the growth of this useful crop banned and the public disillusioned. (4)

And we haven’t even talked about hemp’s long revered history as a medicinal herb.

Hemps use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was referenced in its ancient texts. Because cannabinoids promote homeostasis or “perfect balance” within the body, it’s a natural medicinal herb to encourage “yin” and “yang” properties. Healing ceremonies and religious rites used cannabis since pre Christian times. The Indian culture has always used it to support meditation practices. Hemp was considered sacred in the Indian Vedas, or religious texts (1500 to 1300 BC) known to be “not of a man” or “superhuman” and authorless. Hemp was also granted immortality in the intricate art on the Egyptian pyramids.

Fig. 1. Neter Seshat, goddess of sacred measurements, with a cannabis leaf above her head. Temple of Luxor

Fig. 1. Neter Seshat, goddess of sacred measurements, with a cannabis leaf above her head. Temple of Luxor

Folk remedies and ancient medicines refer to the curative values of the leaves, seeds and roots. Cannabis was traditionally used in medicine for neurological conditions, as an analgesic for chronic pain, inflammation, migraine, muscle cramps, gut issues, insomnia, women’s health issues including menopause and menstrual cramps and easing labor. It was utilized for addiction, asthma, depression, glaucoma, seizures, and hundreds of other health challenges. As such, it’s miraculous plant based natural benefits are being discovered by a whole new generation not afraid to challenge outdated propaganda. Americans are increasingly being self-advocates and demanding better in terms of education and awareness from the providers. At the end of the 19thcentury products were available from Merck in Germany, Bourroughs, Wellcome & Co. in the UK and Squibb, Parke, Davis & Co as well as Eli Lilly & Co in the USA.

Interestingly enough, Eli Lilly and Company was once “a worldwide leader in the distribution of cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.” At a farm in Greenfield, it grew 156 acres of marijuana during the early decades of the 20th century.

Fred Pfenninger, a 69-year-old former attorney turned Eli Lilly and Company diversification analyst opines,“[They] have spent years trying to produce drugs which are as good as cannabis,” he says. “Now they’re faced with a situation where, if cannabis is legalized, people can grow their own medicine. It’s a threat to a lot of drug companies.” A Lilly spokesman commented “For a time in the early 20th century, we manufactured cannabis-based medicines before cannabis was classified as a controlled substance. Lilly is not engaged in cannabis research and does not plan on being engaged in cannabis research in the future. Given our focus on other key therapeutic areas, we will not be active in the debate regarding cannabis.”

The United States Pharmacopeia, the nation’s official drug-reference manual, as recently as 1850, listed cannabis as an option for treatment. The United States Dispensatory, advised doctors that it was valuable as a therapy to “cause sleep, to allay spasm, to compose nervous disquietude, and to relieve pain.” It was a useful treatment for “gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea, hysteria, mental depression, delirium, tremens, insanity and uterine hemorrhage.” For decades, doctors prescribed it liberally and without reservation. (5)

Which leads us to late 2018 when the US Federal government deregulated hemp and allowed its cultivation and distribution from sea to shining sea. The possibilities are glorious and virtually limitless. It’s up to us, the American citizens, to make sure our interests and rights are visible and voiced to our representatives in government, the traditional medicine community entrenched in only what is taught to them in medical school, and research which will continue to provide the studies that these practitioners use as an excuse not to educate themselves on this miraculous plant. Demand better for yourself and your families. Economic abundance and health are within our reach and no doubt, are our rights as American citizens.

1. Late Middle English: from Old Northern French canevas, based on Latin cannabis ‘hemp’, from Greek.

2. https://books.google.com/books?id=e9sDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA87&pg=PA238#v=onepage&q&f=false

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6RS3W98D5I

4. “The Peoples History”, The Thistle (MIT), Volume 13 #2, September/October2000

5. “Eli Lilly’s Hazy Memory” Indianapolis Monthly, Adam Wrenn, March 19, 2019


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