(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 26, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

Hemp has served humans well for thousands of years. Earliest evidence of its use dates back as far as the New Stone Age (15,000 -6,000 B.C.) in the Middle- and Far East, where hemp is thought to have originated. It was one of the first crops ever cultivated by humans and is considered the first source of textile fiber. The oldest extant records mentioning hemp come from central Asia and were made in the third millennium B.C. The Chinese symbol for hemp, for example, is over 4,700 years old (see image at the end of this article).

Throughout history hemp was used as cooking fuel, food (from seeds), fiber, oil (for torches and lamps), and paper making. The ancient Greeks used hemp primarily for cordage and cloth. For many centuries it was the only source of sailcloth and rope used by ships that sailed the western seas. Pioneers covered their prairie schooners and conestoga wagons with hemp canvas. In 1942, U.S. farmers, in support of the war effort, planted 36,000 acres of industrial hemp seed at the government's request. It was used primarily as rope. Even the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are printed on hemp paper and first U.S. flag, sewn by Betsy Ross, was made of hemp cloth.

There are basically two types of hemp. Industrial hemp is differentiated from psychoactive hemp by the percentage of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) it contains: Industrial hemp contains less than 1% while psychoactive hemp contains as much as 20%. Hemp usage discussed here is for industrial hemp only.


Clipper ship with hemp cloth sails

Industrial hemp has a myriad of modern uses. Here is just a sampling:

o Food: Oil for salads and baking, roasted seeds, flour, meal

o Textiles: Clothing, sports gear, canvas, household utility cloths

o Toiletries: Soaps, shampoo, lotions, lipstick, sunscreen, massage oils

o Household: Cordage, candles, rugs, detergent, paint and varnish, pet supplies

o Industrial: Industrial oils, press board

o Healing: Salve, nutrition, aroma therapy


One summer in the late 1960s, at the height of the hippie era, word spread through the hippie culture on the East Coast that free marijuana was to be had for the taking in a former Iowa seven-village commune known as the Amana Colonies. There, it was said, Cannabis sativa grew wild in ditches, along fence rows, and in fields. It was marijuana nirvana.

Since I-80, a major east/west route, runs only five miles from the former commune, hippies were soon finding their way westward via thumb or
the ubiquitous VW bus with its obligatory psychedelic decorations.

After a successful harvest, it was customary to have one's photograph taken in front of the road sign for the village of High Amana (see photo above). Get the connection? Focus on the "high" part of the name and think "marijuana."

By fall of that year, visits to the Amana Colonies began to decline and eventually ceased. The hippies, you see, soon discovered that they couldn't get high on the stuff they were so anxious to harvest. What they were smoking was industrial hemp, raised in the Amana villages during World War II to provide fibers for rope used by the military!

For those who support using "green" building construction methods, here is an interesting quote from John Stahl of Agstone Construction:
"We are pursuing an alternative approach, which seems to us to be a more ecologically efficient solution, since it is closer to the earth, and seems to offer greater advantages and less cost. The basic idea is to use a preparation of hemp hurd [pulp] and lime to create a kind of cement, "Agstone," which may be used to construct floors and walls which are stronger and more durable than cement or concrete, yet less brittle and much lighter. It also exhibits superior properties of insulation, waterproofing, and fireproofing, and can effectively replace not only the structural elements of a wall, but it can stand alone without any additional exterior or interior wall covering. In addition to offering all of these benefits, the material is easy to work with, and can end up saving considerable expense when compared with traditional building methods."

For more information on this unique building material, you may contact John Stahl at: [email protected]. Mr. Stahl also operates a paper-making facility using hemp as a main ingredient.

I'll conclude this brief visit to the remarkable world of industrial hemp with a few more interesting facts:

o Hemp stalks continue to fuel wok cooking in much of China today.

o The string that connected Ben Franklin to the kite and to the lightening in the clouds was hemp string.

o Paper in colonial times was often made from recycled clothes, sails, ropes, and tents made of hemp.

o The first Levi's blue jeans were made of hemp.

You can find a listing of additional uses of the hemp plant here.
For horticultural information on industrial hemp click here.


Chinese character for hemp

Questions? The Google search engine offers you an opportunity to discover anything you ever wanted to know about hemp. The space below offers you an opportunity to comment. I enjoy hearing from my readers!

Hemp drawing (512 A.D.) courtesy of Wikipedia
Hippie photo courtesy of Getty Images
Clipper ship photo courtesy of Vern Rogers

© Larry Rettig 2008