Hemp: A Global Commodity
PrimeMyBody’s History of Hemp series continues its look into hemp’s illustrious and controversial past.
The resurgence of hemp and cannabis in the 21st century is gaining momentum, seemingly by the day. There is widespread confidence and faith that in the coming years, on an international scale, hemp’s use as a utility in health, wellness, nutrition, and textile industries will rise above its favorable standing prior to prohibition.
By the 18th century hemp was a globally popular commodity. Its cultivation for textile, nutritional, and medical purposes was common throughout Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa.
As a resource for medicinal applications, cannabis and hemp became widely accepted by physicians and medical practices. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European physicians traveled to Africa and Asia to study and investigate, more in-depth, the medical uses of cannabis, bringing home with them treatment theories for physical ailments like typhoid fever, epilepsy, smallpox, and rheumatism.
As the field of psychotherapy and psychology evolved at this time, researchers and psychiatrists began to embrace psychological conditions as more human- or humanity-based, rather then circumstances of supernatural influence. With openness to new treatment possibilities, psychologists like Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tour—one of the first physicians to analyze drugs’ effects on the central nervous system—concluded that psychoactive substances, like cannabis, could aid in better understanding and treating mental illness.
From an economic standpoint, governments and parliaments utilized hemp as a stable crop for food and fiber. In 1535, as a means of developing a fortified Navy to defend against invasions from countries like France and Spain, England’s King Henry VIII required all land owners with more than 60 acres to dedicate at the least one-quarter acre of land to hemp. If his order was not obeyed, subjects faced steep fines and garnishment of annual wages. Fiber from raw hemp was used primarily for sails, netting, ropes, and clothing. Until the 1920s, 80 percent of clothing in England was made from hemp textiles.
In Europe and the Americas, between the 16th and early 20th centuries, most of the cloth or canvas used for sails was made from hemp. War ships and merchant vessels required miles of hemp fiber to make their sails and rope, and ship captains were often times required to transport hemp seeds to regions where repairs were needed. It’s been noted that the word “canvas” actually is a derivative of the word “cannabis.”
It’s still debated whether cannabis grew as a native species in North America prior to European arrival. Explorer Jacques Cartier—credited in historical text as a discoverer of Canada— noted hemp did grow natively prior to European exploration and wrote of hemp in the 16th century, “frill of hempe which growthe of itself, which is good as possibly may be scene, and as strong.” Contrary to Cartier’s documentation, anthropologists who have spoken with Native American tribe elders have said—according to their conversations—cannabis is the only good thing that the settlers brought with them to the New World.
Spanish, French, and English explorers all brought barrels of hemp seeds with them to the Americas. During the North American colonial expansion, hemp was a primary crop, used for many of the same textile and medicinal purposes as it was in Europe. One of the first laws in Colonial America required farmers to grow hemp. In fact, hemp grown at this time could be used as a means of paying taxes. Wouldn’t that be a nice option today.
Many of the United States founding fathers were in fact wealthy farmers, who, if you couldn’t already guess, depended on stable yields of industrial hemp. Principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “hemp is the first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.”
By the mid 19th century, hemp was grown in nearly every U.S. state at one time or another. But, with the invention and mainstream use of the cotton gin, cotton became a major competitor to hemp’s agriculture dominance. Because harvesting hemp and retting its fiber was a labor-intensive process, the cotton gin made cotton a more economical product to harvest. That was until George Schlichten invented the decorticator, a machine that made extracting hemp fibers from the stalk easier, faster, and cheaper.
On the heels of the advent of the decorticator, Popular Mechanics magazine dubbed hemp, “The New Billion Dollar Crop.” The 1937 article reads, “From this point on almost anything can happen. The raw fiber can be used to produce strong twine or rope, woven into burlap, used for carpet warp or linoleum backing or it may be bleached and refined, with resinous by-products of high commercial value.”
Unfortunately, the noise of hemp as the next billion-dollar crop was silenced by prohibition. In our next History of Hemp series post we’ll look at the political, racial, and special interest agendas that resulted in the complete deregulation of hemp and cannabis in the United States.