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How the technologically-superior hemp paper met its demise

A field of hemp in Norfolk, England. Image courtesy of Evelyn Simak.

A field of hemp in Norfolk, England. Image courtesy of Evelyn Simak.

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Here’s a riddle for you: what does the Gutenberg Bible, the 17th century King James Bible, Huckleberry Finn, The Three Musketeers, Alice in Wonderland and the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh have in common? They, and almost everything else up until the close of the 18th century, were made using hemp paper.

Despite the attempt of the Chinese (who for all practical purposes invented the medium of paper for writing around 105 A.D.) to keep the secret of modern paper making from the rest of the world, the ‘technology’ was eventually replicated around the globe and traditional writing mediums such as papyrus, tree barks, clay tablets and parchments (animal skin) quickly met its end.

Why did the Chinese kept the ancient technology of hemp paper-making a secret?

Why keep it a secret, you may wonder?

A simple to produce, long-lasting and cost-effective writing medium allows the recording and archiving of events, knowledge, and theories, which would lead to the establishment of continuous teaching, extrapolation and analysis of said data by scholars over successive generations. This will help to facilitate cumulative learning and communal intellectual and technological development.

A civilization based on such a premise will easily outgrow and dominate other contemporary societies and cultures, which would be forced to rely on cultural and scientific developments generationally. This explains why China was so dominant in the centuries after the discovery of the hemp paper, before the Europeans started to catch up 1400 years later.

Remnants of 2,100-year-old Chinese hemp paper found inside the Han Tomb of Wu Di at Baqiao, Xi'An. It's currently on display at the Shaanxi history museum. Image courtesy of Yannick Trottier.
Remnants of 2,100-year-old Chinese hemp paper found inside the Han Tomb of Wu Di at Baqiao, Xi’An. It’s currently on display at the Shaanxi history museum. Image courtesy of Yannick Trottier.

The historical dominance of hemp paper

Despite the dominance that hemp paper held in the world’s writing industry, which includes newspapers, currencies, and of course books, very few of us are cognizant of its place in history.  Its hardy nature and ease of production made it an intrinsic part of society. The incredible regenerative properties of hemp fibers allowed used ropes, fabrics and other by-products of the hemp plant to be recycled into hemp paper, which ensures that the economic value of the plants is maximized almost completely. The robust nature of the hemp paper, as well as its natural ability to tolerate humidity and pests, makes it last almost a hundred times longer than other forms of writing medium at the time.

Not an eyebrow was raised when the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper, and up until the 1920s, the American government itself was still using them as writing medium, including for laws and decrees. As far as writing mediums go, the hemp paper was almost perfect.

The death of hemp paper industry

What went wrong, you may wonder again. Well, the hemp paper industry was indicted, jailed and the keys were thrown away by the lawmakers for the simple reason of guilt by association with its cousin, marijuana, a much better-known by-product of the hemp plant.

In an astonishingly concerted and coordinated attack led by William Randolph Hearst and Herman Oliphant, Chief Legal Counsel for the Treasury Dept, with incriminating evidence based primarily from the testimonies of staffs from Dupont Chemicals (which was the chief competitor of the hemp plant industry at the time through their development of the nylon fabric and wood pulp paper industry), the 1937 Marijuana Transfer Tax Act was enacted and subsequently passed by the Congress. In a single, swift stroke, marijuana, along with the entire hemp plant family, was banished to the dark side of the American morality scale.

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