Hemp is an ancient plant that has been cultivated for millennia. The Columbia History of the World (1996) states that weaving of hemp fiber began over 10,000 years ago!
In Great Britain, hemp cultivation dates back to 800AD. In the 16th Century, Henry VIII encouraged farmers to plant the crop extensively to provide materials for the British Naval fleet. A steady supply of hemp was needed for the construction of battleships and their components. Riggings, pendants, pennants, sails, and oakum were all made from hemp fiber and oil. Hemp paper was used for maps, logs, and even for the Bibles that sailors may have brought on board
17th Century America, farmers in Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut were ordered by law to grow Indian hemp. By the early 18th century, a person could be sentenced to jail if they weren’t growing hemp on their land! Hemp was considered to be legal tender. For over 200 years in colonial America, hemp was currency that one could use to pay their taxes with! (Don’t try that today, kids!)
The 1850 U.S. census documented approximately 8,400 hemp plantations of at least 2000 acres. Strains in cultivation included China hemp, Smyrna hemp and Japanese hemp.
For years, hemp farmers used a hand break operated machine when harvesting. Finally a machine was built that would take care of all the processes, breaking the retted stalks and cleaning the fiber to produce clean, straight hemp fiber which was equal to the best grades prepared on hand brakes. This machine was able to harvest 1000 pounds or more of clean hemp fiber per hour. This breakthrough made cultivating more fiscally attractive by reducing labor costs. By 1920 the hemp crop was entirely handled by machinery.
In 1896 Rudolph Diesel had produced his famous engine. Like many others, Diesel assumed that the diesel engine would be powered by a variety of fuels, especially vegetable and seed oils. Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company seeing the potential of biomass fuels operated a successful biomass conversion plant producing hemp fuel at their Iron Mountain facility in Michigan. Ford engineers extracted methanol, charcoal fuel, tar, pitch, ethyl acetate and creosote, fundamental ingredients for modern industry. Today these are supplied by oil-related industries.
Viewing hemp as a threat, a smear campaign against hemp was started by competing industries, associating hemp with marijuana.
Propaganda films like “Reefer Madness” assured hemp’s demise.
When Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, the decline of hemp effectively began. The tax and licensing regulations of the act made hemp cultivation nearly impossible for American farmers. Anslinger, the chief promoter of the Tax Act, argued for anti-marijuana legislation around the world.
An interesting situation arose during World War II as American Farmers were prohibited from producing hemp because of the 1937 law. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor halted the importation of Manila hemp from the Philippines, prompting the USDA to rethink their agenda and creating a call to action with the release of the film Hemp for Victory, motivating American Farmers to grow hemp for the war effort. The government formed a private company called War Hemp Industries to subsidize hemp cultivation. One million acres of hemp were grown across the Midwest as part of this program. As soon as the war ended, all of the hemp processing plants were shut down and the industry again disappeared. However, wild hemp may be found scattered across the country.
From 1937 until the late 1960s the United States government recognized that Industrial Hemp and marijuana were two distinct varieties of the cannabis plant. After the Controlled Substances Act was passed, hemp was no longer recognized as being distinct from marijuana.