Hemp History

History of Hemp

The history of the industrial use of cannabis goes back many years. For example, the Chinese grew hemp 4,500 years ago for textile fiber and they also used the seed as food. The spread of cannabis took place from China to the Middle East and to the Mediterranean area and, subsequently, to Europe, probably via nomadic peoples.

Beginning around the year 600, the Germans, Frankish tribes and Vikings produced rope, cloth and garments from hemp fiber. In the Middle Ages, most people wore sandals made of hemp. Many farmers grew hemp on a small scale.

Since the Middle Ages, the industrial use of hemp has seen a number of peaks:

17th Century

The sails and lines on the first ships that sailed the world’s seas were woven from braided hemp fibers. In the 17th century, hemp was first used on a large scale in industrial products in the Netherlands . During its peak years, the area around the Zaan river produced 60,000 rolls of sailcloth. Workers wore hemp clothing and Rembrandt sketched on paper made from hemp.

During the Dutch Golden Century, the United East India Company (Dutch: VOC) encouraged the cultivation of hemp plants. Second to wood, hemp was the most important component in shipbuilding.

19th century

Up until the industrial revolution in the 19thcentury, the production of hemp fiber was difficult and labor-intensive. Once alternative materials such as cotton, jute, wood pulp and artificial fibers were produced, the importance of hemp cultivation for textile, rope and paper decreased. Ships powered by engines replaced sailing ships. In shipping, iron and steel replaced natural fibers.

20th century

Hemp gained importance again in World War II. This cheap, stiff fiber was quite welcomed in the war industry. Hemp fiber was used for parachutes, uniforms, tarps and tent cloth, among other things. The American government encouraged farmers to grow hemp. This propaganda film can be viewed from that era immediately after the war; the US forbided cultivation again (as they did previously in 1937). This happened due to lobbying pressure from the petrochemical industry, the wood trade and the trade in cheap textiles.

In Europe, also, hemp was displaced by cheaper fibers such as cotton as soon as the world market once again became accessible after WWII. The increasing popularity of synthetic fibers after 1945 ensured hemp’s downfall as a raw material for industrial products in the entire western world. Growing hemp for fiber and seed production was rehabilitated at the European level in 1989.  Since the 1990s, fiber hemp could be grown again under certain conditions.

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