Top ten hemp legends: Which myths are true -- and which went up in smoke?

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

Did Henry Ford really make a car out of hemp? Was the Declaration of Independence written on hemp paper? Did Abraham Lincoln use hemp oil in his lamps?

The hemp plant, a variety of Cannabis sativa that's the subject of this week's cover story "Green Acres," is steeped in lore. Some hemp legends are true. Others are half-true, and some are completely false. Here, we present ten hemp myths culled from the Internet -- and attempt to separate the fact from the fiction.

10. George Washington grew hemp.

This oft-repeated legend is true; watch a video above of the folks at Mount Vernon, Washington's plantation-turned-museum, talking about the president's hemp farming.

If that's not enough proof, the column The Straight Dope took on a version of this question in 2009, providing a detailed answer and listing its sources.

"Both Washington and Jefferson tried growing hemp on their Virginia farms, with mixed success," The Straight Dope reports. Though he wasn't very successful, "Washington continued to tout the crop after he became president," columnist Cecil Adams adds.

9. Abraham Lincoln used hemp seed oil in his lamps. While hemp seed oil can be used in lamps, we couldn't find any credible evidence that Lincoln himself used it. We did find references to Lincoln using whale-oil lamps, as well as an article in a White House Historical Association publication explaining that the family quarters of the Lincoln White House boasted indoor plumbing and gas-fed lighting.

Some hemp websites even go so far as to claim that Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation by the light of a hemp seed-oil lamp. As proof, they offer this quote, which has absolutely nothing to do with lamps: "Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica."

But Lincoln may have never said that. Several websites claim our sixteenth president wrote that strange sentence in a letter to the Hohner harmonica folks in 1855. But Hohner, a German company that also makes banjos and accordions, wasn't founded until 1857.

Continue for more hemp legends. 8. Vincent Van Gogh painted on hemp canvas. This legend may or may not be true. While hemp canvases existed in the 19th century, when Van Gogh was alive and painting, they weren't as popular as they had been in the past -- notably in the 17th century.

One of the best sources we found on this is a 1980 article from the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, in which the author reports on sampling canvases from 116 Dutch, English, French, Italian and Spanish paintings. She found that by the late 18th century, most painters had transitioned from painting on hemp canvases to painting on linen. As for why, she notes, "the disappearance of the use of hemp canvases coincides exactly with the decline in the production of hemp in France, which began circa 1820."

The author tested six Van Gogh paintings specifically and found that all of them were painted on "preprimed off-white," meaning "machine woven linen ... preprimed being used in the sense that the priming was applied to the canvas before it was stretched."

Most hemp websites also declare that Rembrandt painted on hemp canvases. This assertion is more likely to be true, considering that Rembrandt painted during the 17th century.

7. Hemp helped clean the soil around Chernobyl. This is another tricky one. There are news reports that a U.S. company called Phytotech, along with Ukranian scientists, planted cannabis around Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear power plant accident, in 1998 to see if the plant would suck up contaminants in the soil through a process known as phytoremediation. But the results of that study aren't widely available -- if they're available at all.

A sort-of interim report was given in New Scientist magazine in April 1999. An article called "Back to Chernobyl" quotes someone named Slavik Dushenkov of Phytotech (which appears not to exist anymore) talking about the project:

After processing the plants, they obtained clean hemp fibre and plant remains rich in caesium. The contaminated remains were burnt in a sealed incinerator that caught all the radioactive ash.

But so far, this method looks as if it could remove only about 1 per cent of the caesium, as much of it is tightly bound to soil particles.

So did Phytotech plant hemp around Chernobyl? Probably. Did it work? It's unclear.

Continue for even more hemp legends. 6. Henry Ford made a car out of hemp.

It seems there is some truth to this legend, though it doesn't go as far as some would like. There is indeed a video (see above) of Henry Ford whacking the rear windshield of what many assume is a "hemp car" with an axe to show its strength.

But the part about the car being entirely, or even mostly, made of hemp? Unlikely. In fact, the Benson Ford Research Center -- named after a descendant of Henry Ford and containing his personal book collection and the Ford Motor Company's corporate archives -- refers to it as the "soybean car." Here's an excerpt from their explanation:

What is it?

The "Soybean Car" was actually a plastic-bodied car unveiled by Henry Ford on August 13, 1941 at Dearborn Days, an annual community festival.

What was it made of?

The frame, made of tubular steel, had 14 plastic panels attached to it. The car weighed 2,000 lbs., 1,000 lbs. lighter than a steel car. The exact ingredients of the plastic panels are unknown because no record of the formula exists today. One article claims that they were made from a chemical formula that, among many other ingredients, included soybeans, wheat, hemp, flax and ramie; while the man who was instrumental in creating the car, Lowell E. Overly, claims it was "...soybean fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in the impregnation."

A blog called The Angry Historian researched this myth in 2010 and references that article: a 1941 New York Times story that claims Ford chemists had developed a plastic made of 70 percent cellulose fiber, and that those fibers included 10 percent hemp.

So while the car likely had some hemp in it, it's probably a stretch to call it a "hemp car."

5. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. This legend is false. The final, official Declaration of Independence is kept at the Library of Congress, and researchers there say it was written on parchment, a type of paper made from animal skin. But what about the rough drafts of the document? Many hempsters claim that those were written on hemp paper.

That's unlikely. The website for Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home-turned-museum, says as much: "According to the Library of Congress, analysis [of the original rough draft] by paper conservators has determined that the paper is most likely Dutch in origin. While hemp was commonly used to make paper in Southern Europe during this time, the Dutch were much more likely to use flax or linen rags."

Reluctant to give up, hemp boosters suggest that additional rough drafts may be made of hemp. Why? Because Benjamin Franklin helped edit the Declaration of Independence, and he also allegedly owned a hemp paper mill.

Alas, that legend may also be untrue. For instance, this is what the Benjamin Franklin Tercentary, a private, non-profit alliance established to mark the three-hundred-year anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's birth in 2006, has to say about his paper mills: "He and his wife collected cotton rags (the raw material of paper), invested in setting up paper mills, and eventually ran a thriving wholesale paper business."

Continue for more hemp legends. 4. Australians survived two famines by eating virtually nothing but hemp seed for protein and hemp leaves for roughage. This legend sounds so insane that no one would give it a second thought. Right?

Wrong. The Internet is rife with websites boasting this supposed fact; even the "Cannabis in Australia" Wikipedia entry mentions it, attributing it to a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald article that quotes Australia's first licensed industrial hemp farmer as having said it.

But it's most likely false. In fact, we couldn't find evidence of a single famine in Australian history, let alone two that were abated by the almighty hemp plant.

3. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency spends 99 percent of its marijuana eradication budget on cutting down feral hemp, also known as ditch weed. In 2004, the pro-cannabis group NORML put out a press release claiming DEA data shows that "of the estimated 247 million marijuana plants destroyed by law enforcement in 2003, more than 243 million were classified as 'ditch weed.'"

As proof, they cite a chart in the 2003 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, a University of Albany publication that was formerly funded by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The chart shows that most of the cannabis destroyed by the DEA was indeed ditch weed, mostly growing in Indiana. A note at the bottom of the chart says it was adapted by Sourcebook staff from data provided by the DEA.

But is that true? We contacted the federal DEA, which confirmed that the statistics cited by NORML are accurate. By way of explanation, DEA public affairs staff coordinator Michael Rothermund offered this:

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) uses the term "marijuana" (sometimes spelled "marihuana") to refer to all cannabis plants, regardless of their THC content. Under the CSA, any person who seeks to grow marijuana for any purpose, including industrial purposes, must be registered with the DEA. DEA evaluates these applications for registration in compliance with the statutory factors mandated by Congress and applicable regulations.

And if they're not registered, the DEA chops 'em down.

Continue for our top two hemp legends. 2. Hemp requires no irrigation or pesticides to grow. It's true that the manner in which hemp grows -- tall and very close together -- shades out many weeds and makes it tough for insects to infiltrate. But the plant is not magic.

According to this fact sheet from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food of British Columbia in Canada -- which legalized hemp in 1998 -- "the suggestion that hemp requires no pesticides is not true." However, the fact sheet also notes that "hemp appears to be more free of pests than some other crops," and says that "if a hemp stand is healthy and even, weeds can be reduced to virtually zero under the hemp canopy."

As for water requirements, the fact sheet notes that hemp plants need "plenty" of rainfall, especially within the first six weeks. After that, it says, the plant is drought resistant, though it grows thicker and taller when watered.

1. In 1938, Popular Mechanics called hemp a "billion-dollar crop." This legend is true. In February 1938, the magazine featured an article called "New Billion-Dollar Crop" (page 238) that proclaimed, "American farmers are promised a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars, all because a machine has been invented which solves a problem more than 6,000 years old." The crop was hemp and the new machine was a so-called decorticator that separated the usable fiber from the plant.

But the article left the most important details for last. The last two paragraphs say, "Federal regulations now being drawn up require registration of hemp growers, and tentative proposals for preventing narcotic production are rather stringent."

It went on to call the connection between hemp and marijuana "exaggerated" and predict that "if federal regulations can be drawn to protect the public without preventing the legitimate culture of hemp, the new crop can add immeasurably to American agriculture and industry." Unfortunately, the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which had passed by the time the Popular Mechanics article appeared, saw to it that that wouldn't happen.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Hemp for Victory: Watch 1942 USDA film encouraging farmers to grow crop during WWII."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.