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Then, Now & How: The History of Hemp

Hemp is currently known as a highly versatile and sustainable plant with numerous applications across the textile industry. What is less known nowadays is its rich history spanning thousands of years of human history. 

Exploring the historical roots of hemp not only gives us a glimpse into its fascinating past but also helps us understand its potential in the present and future. 

From its origins in early Eastern civilizations, to its introduction in the Americas by European settlers  hemp has left an indelible mark on various societies that we must learn from to build a more sustainable future.

Eastern Origins - Cultivation in Early Eastern Civilizations

Our journey across the history of hemp begins in ancient times, where its cultivation can be traced back to early Eastern civilizations. China and Mesopotamia stand out as the pioneering regions where hemp was first cultivated and put to good use.

In China, hemp fibers were used to create textiles, ropes, and paper as early as 2800 BCE. Early Chinese societies also recognized hemp's medicinal properties and integrated them into their traditional healing practices, along with eating hemp seeds and oil. 

Similarly, in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and parts of present-day Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey), hemp played a crucial role in textile production and was considered a valuable commodity. The fibers were used in pottery to give vessels, bowls, and other daily objects  strength and durability. 

Hemp in the Early Americas - Introduction by European Settlers

Now, fast forward to the age of exploration across the Atlantic and the colonization of the Americas. Although exact details vary, there is general consensus that hemp made its way across the Atlantic with the Spanish settlers sometime in the mid 1500’s to the early 1600’s. It was through widespread colonization that hemp became a mainstream crop with European settlers in the Americas. 

In fact, the crop became so popular that the early American colonies enacted laws at the behest of King King Henry VIII that required farmers to grow hemp as a means of supporting the British navy and promoting local textile production. 

Hemp became a vital resource for rope-making, sailcloth, and clothing in the fledgling colonies. Its cultivation was so prevalent that even George Washington, one of America's founding fathers, grew hemp on his plantation.

Industrial Revolution - Hemp's Importance in Textile Production

As the world entered the era of the Industrial Revolution, hemp's versatility and durability made it an indispensable darling of the rapidly expanding textile production industry. Mills and factories sprung up, and hemp became a primary source of fiber for a wide range of products. It provided the raw material for canvas, sacks and clothing, supplying the growing demand of a rapidly industrializing world. 

Hemp's strength and resilience made it a favored choice for heavy-duty applications, and it played a significant role in shaping the textile industry of the time.

Prohibition - Shifting Perceptions and Restrictions on Hemp

Unfortunately, hemp's journey took a detour in the 20th century due to changing attitudes and misguided perceptions

As marijuana became increasingly stigmatized, hemp was unfairly associated with its psychoactive cousin. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 placed heavy regulations and taxes on hemp production, effectively limiting its cultivation. 

Despite its functional prohibition, hemp still had a role to play in the United States’ arc of history. As WWII heated up, the US government made a large push to re-normalize and promote the production of hemp, for the US war economy. In response to a critical shortage of materials needed for production of military equipment, the US Department of Agriculture launched the Hemp for Victory program, which encouraged farmers to prioritize hemp production. The program gave out seeds and provided draft deferments to farmers who would stay home and farm hemp. By 1943 the program was responsible for the harvest of 375,000 acres of hemp.

Despite the plant’s conspicuous role in bolstering the wartime economy of the United States, it took yet another hit in 1970 with the passage of the Controlled Substance Act. This created the now-widely-known five-tier schedule system used to classify and regulate drugs in the United States, with hemp being placed into the highest level of regulation given its association with marijuana, given that it is classified as a cannabis plant. The year 1970 saw yet another major setback for hemp’s potential, with the plant being unfairly lumped into a bucket of classification with drugs such as LSD, methamphetamine, peyote, and ecstasy. 

Hemp's potential and historical significance were overshadowed by its de facto prohibition setting back innovation in uses of the miracle plant by nearly a century. 

Hemp Now - Global Trends in Hemp Production and Consumption

Despite the last century of oppression for our miracle crop, all signs today point to the tides turning. In recent years, the world has witnessed a resurgence of interest in hemp and its numerous benefits. With increased awareness about its sustainable qualities, hemp is making a comeback. 

Countries around the globe are revisiting their legislation, recognizing the economic and ecological value of hemp. From textiles and construction materials to food and wellness products, hemp is gaining popularity in various industries. Its versatility, low environmental impact, and potential for regenerative agriculture make it a go-to choice for a sustainable future.

Closing Thoughts

The history of hemp is a testament to its enduring significance and versatility. From its cultivation in ancient Eastern civilizations to its introduction to the Americas and its crucial role during the Industrial Revolution, hemp has woven itself into the fabric of societies across time. Despite periods of prohibition and misunderstanding, hemp is now experiencing a renaissance as the world recognizes its sustainable qualities and potential applications

As society embraces the possibilities of hemp, its past time to honor its historical journey and the profound impact it has had on human civilization.


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