Chapter 4 - (2nd Edition)
Virginia -- Industrial Hemp


[WARNING - much of the following consists of opinions, which while valid do NOT represent the view points of all museum members.   In addition, while documenting as much as possible, it is very possible that (because the subject is so subjective) that some technical errors might have been made. ]
Given the history of Hemp cultivation in Virginia and its economic and agricultural significance; --- so much so that it was even illegal at one time NOT to grow it, one would think that it would still be in mass production to this day.   That if one were to visit the State, one would see rows upon rows of Hemp Stocks, growing just about everywhere.   Yet the sad truth is that today (with the exception of some very few indoor farmers) no such growth is still taken place.

The following table is taken from the U.S. 1890 Census [AA] shows the problem in a nutshell.

Cesnus Table
U.S. 1890 Census

Note that the table goes back all the way to 1840; ---also note that states like Virginia don’t even register on it.   In other words, somewhere between 1820 and 1840, Hemp simply STOPPED being a major factor in the states economy.   WHY?

Many would point to the coming of the Reefer Madness dis-information campaign, which demonized Medical Cannabis and created the anti-Medical Marihuana laws as being the main, if not sole reason.   But this in turn begs the question; “How was it possible to demonize (as the Weed of Madness), what was being grown on the farm next to yours?”

The answer is you couldn’t, thus in the author’s opinion, the Reefer Madness campaign was only possible because Industrial Hemp production was already in mass decline.   An answer which in turn begs a question of its own, WHY?

The following are some of the factors, which again in the author’s opinion, led to this decline:
  • KING COTTON: --- In 1794 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which allowed for the separation of Cotton seeds, etc., from the actual cotton fiber.   This factor cannot be underestimated.  It must be remembered that Hemp fibers themselves were originally a cheaper substitute for wool, which itself was a cheaper substitute for a whole host of other substances.   Cotton before (before the invention of the cotton gin) was simply too expensive, and labor intensive to be practical for common use.   Aka, it simply took too long to separate the cotton seeds, steams and other objects away from the actual cotton fiber. However, after its invention the price of cotton started to drop and drop.   Soon it was the dominant fiber for clothing.

    But cotton, while being a gentler fabric (good for shirts, underwear, etc.), because of its very gentleness (or weakness if you will) made it a poorer material for ropes, twine, blue jeans, sailing canvases, and other industrial uses etc., -----Thus cotton, while a factor was far from the only one.

  • LABOR COSTS: --- Hemp has always been a labor intensive crop, so much so that in 1815 Thomas Jefferson (yes that Thomas Jefferson), wrote the following:
    " abundantly productive and will grow forever on the same spot, but the breaking and beating it, which has always been done by hand, is so slow, so laborious, and so much complained of by our laborers, that I have given it up, . . . ; and in the mean time a method of removing the difficulty of preparing hemp occurred to me, so simple and so cheap, that I return to it's culture and manufacture.   To a person having a threshing machine, the addition of a hemp break will not cost more than . . . “--- Dec. 29, 1815 In a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Fleming.
    Labor intensive here can be thought of as nothing more than a nice term for EXPENSIVE, and while cotton also is labor intensive, due to various factors, it was able to adapt.

  • THE PHILIPPINES & CHEAPER IMPORTS: --- Unlike cotton, which due to climate and weather conditions couldn’t just be grown anywhere.   Hemp can, and in addition it had competitors such as jute, sisal etc., which started to be imported into this country around the 1830’s.   --- Without tariff protections American Hemp farmers just couldn’t compete with the cheaper imports.   Then in 1898 the ultimate horror happened.  The Philippines were annexed and with it, its much cheaper to produce Manila Hemp plantations.

  • SCIENTIFIC INVENTIONS: ---- During the latter part of the 19th Century. It seems that just about everything started to go against Industrial Hemp production including science. Examples:
  • PLASTICS - Contrary to what most people think, the first plastics (which is a generic term) were developed in the 1890’s.   And granted, it took a while for them to develop into full-fledged products, still the hand-writing was already on the wall for Hemp twine and rope.

  • PETROLEUM OIL - It is a fact that the original automobiles were designed to run on peanut, cotton and hemp seed oil.   However, petroleum (which at the time was much, much cheaper) quickly became a replacement.   In addition, petroleum oil also replaced Hemp oil for lamps etc., at about this time.

  • PULP PAPER - Although paper had traditionally been made from human grown/cultivated crops such as cotton and Hemp, by the mid-19th Century, inventors started to figure out how to make it directly out of wood pulp or sawdust.   Although debatable, in the author’s opinion it was a couple of French guys around the 1880’s, who figured out how to put the last pieces of the process together that gave Hemp the coup-d’-grass.   [a thousand curses on them both]
The list can go on and on, but I feel the reader gets the idea, hemp simply couldn’t economically compete with other sources of fiber at the time.   The following, taken from the 1900 census clearly describes the problem.
“Hemp production in the United States reached its highest point in 1859, the decline since that time being 137,235,370 pounds, or 92.1 percent.   The last decade showed a decline of 11,271,370 pounds, or 49.0 per cent.   There are several reasons for the decline, among which are the introduction of manila hemp, the large importation of jute, the decline in prices of hard cordage fibers such as sisal and the use of cotton for twine and yarns. “ - US. 1900 Census (Statistics of Agriculture) - pg 420
And as far as Virginia is concerned, the 1880 census showed that NO Hemp was being grown in the State. [dd]

No growers were registered to legally grow Hemp under the Marihuana Tax act in 1938 through 1940 and even during the World War II (Hemp for Victory campaign) less than a dozen did so.   For all practical purposes Hemp, as far as the State of Virginia was concerned, was dead.

However, to end this section on a high note, it should be pointed out (hell it must be pointed out), that almost all of the above factors that lead to hemp’s demise have now reversed themselves.   We are running out of oil (making plastics expensive), wood pulp is no longer a cheap byproduct of the lumber industry (assuming the forests are there to cut down), Hemp (with some chemical treatments) can be made just as soft as cotton, and unlike cotton, hemp can be grown just about anywhere.   In other words, if it weren’t for the anti-Medical Marihuana laws, Industrial hemp would be flourishing right now, right in our nation.

-- Volume 5 - Report on the Statistics of Agriculture in the United States - 11th Census: 1890 - Washington DC, Government printing office (1895) - Table found on page 63 - Adobe file 1890a_v5-06
[dd] -- Information taken from the US 1880 census (Statistics of Agriculture) pg 246 Table XII


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