History of Hemp in Virginia

Throughout Colonial America Industrial Hemp played an integral role in the lives and economy of the settlers.

Although, much of the fiber was destined for British consumption, the colonists produced many goods including paper, cloth, canvas and cordage for their own use. In 1619 the Virginia House of Burgesses, which was the legal body in North America, passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp. During shortages in Virginia, in the years 1763 to 1767, you could be fined for not growing hemp on your farm.

 

 
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From 1000 B.C. to the nineteenth century, Hemp was the world's largest agricultural crop.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both founding fathers and famous Virginians, were promoters and cultivators of hemp for industrial purposes. For over 200 years in Colonial Virginia, hemp was a form of currency that one could pay their taxes with. Washington speaks throughout his farm diary about the quality of seeds, always taking care to sow seeds in best areas on his farm at Mount Vernon. Washington began cultivating “Indian hemp” which he said produced the best quality of plant, and noted its superior quality to common hemp mostly grown during that time.Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia and believed hemp to be a superior crop to tobacco, which was a competing cash crop of the time. He said tobacco exhausted the soil, used to much manure, and provided no nourishment for cattle. Hemp on the other hand “was of the first necessity to commerce and marine, in other words to the wealth and protection of the country.” Washington speaks throughout his farm diary about the quality of seeds, always taking care to sow seeds in best areas on his farm at Mount Vernon. Washington began cultivating “Indian hemp” which he said produced the best quality of plant, and noted its superior quality to common hemp mostly grown during that time.


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Decortification, is the process of splitting the stems into the hurd (80%) and fiber (20%). This critical step is very labor intensive and early hand brakes were introduced to assist in this arduous task. Around 1815 Thomas Jefferson received the first US patent for his hemp breaking machine, which reportedly did the work of ten men. Further advancements mechanized the process and by 1920 the crop was entirely handled by machinery. This breakthrough greatly reduced labor costs and made cultivation of Industrial Hemp more fiscally attractive. Unfortunately, by the time this technology was set to revolutionize hemp processing in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was put in place and effectively ended the hemp industry in America.

 
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The licensing and tax regulations of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made hemp cultivation nearly impossible for American farmers, and effectively began the decline of hemp production. It is widely known these laws were enacted due to a smear campaign led by the competing paper and oil industries. Lobbying efforts sought to associate hemp and marijuana and bring about the plants demise. Ironically, in that same year the DuPont Corporation patented a high sulfur processing technique to pulp wood products for paper and a new synthetic fiber called Nylon. These new products and processes would go onto dominate industries that once primarily used hemp.