The history of the industrial use of cannabis goes back many years. For example, the Chinese grew hemp 4500 years ago for textile fiber. They also used the seed as food. The spread of cannabis took place from China to the Middle East and the Mediterranean area and, subsequently, to Europe, probably via nomadic peoples.
Starting 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 hemp sandals. Many farmers grew hemp on a small scale.
Since the Middle Ages, the industrial use of hemp has seen a number of peaks:
The sails and lines on the first ships that sailed the world’s seas are woven from braided hemp fibers. In the 17th century, hemp is first used on a large scale in industrial products in the Netherlands . During its peak years, the area around the Zaan river produces 60,000 rolls of sailcloth. Workers wear hemp clothing and Rembrandt sketches on paper made from hemp.
During the Dutch Golden Century, the United East India Company (Dutch: VOC) encourage the cultivation of the hemp plant. After wood, hemp is the most important component in shipbuilding.
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 are produced, the importance of hemp cultivation for textile, rope and paper decreases. Ships powered by engines replace sailing ships. In shipping, iron and steel replace natural fibers.
Hemp gains importance again in World War II. This cheap, stiff fiber is quite welcome in the war industry. Hemp fiber is used for parachutes, uniforms, tarps and tent cloth, among other things. The American government encourages farmers to grow hemp. View this propaganda film from that era immediately after the war, the US forbids cultivation again (they had done this previously as well, in 1937). This happened due to lobbying pressure from the petrochemical industry, the wood trade and the trade in cheap textiles.
In Europe, too, hemp is displaced by cheaper fibers such as cotton as soon as the world market once again becomes accessible after WWII. The increasing popularity of synthetic fibers after 1945 ensures hemp’s downfall as a raw material for industrial products in the entire western world for the time being. Growing hemp for fiber and seed production is rehabilitated at the European level in 1989. Since the 1990s, fiber hemp may be grown again under certain conditions