History of hemp in Finland

Erkki Laitinen
Voionmaankatu 24 B, FIN-40100 Jyväskylä, Finland

Arrival in Finland
   Hemp, a crop plant found all over the world, has been cultivated for at least 3,000 years.   It was grown in India during the years 800-900 B.C, and was the first fiber plant to be used in China.  In Europe, hemp became known a little later than in Asia.   Its use is mentioned at the end of the 'golden' period of Greece and during Roman times, approximately 2,000 years ago.  At that time, hemp was already being cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region, according to historic documents.
    Recent scientific investigations have, however, changed established opinions on the age of hemp cultivation in Europe.  Evidence of hemp cultivation in the area of modern Switzerland, Austria and Germany during the period of 800-400 BC, has been suggested from the analysis of soil samples from these regions.  It may be assumed that with continuing paleoecological (i.e., research on pollen from lake sediments) and macro-fossil (i.e., research on plant deposits from the ground) studies, the established dates and accepted geographic distributions for the cultivation of hemp will begin to be altered.
    These new research methods are changing opinions on the history of hemp cultivation in Finland.  According to current opinion, hemp cultivation reached Finland from Russia (through Karelia, an area bordering modern Finland and Russia) approximately in the 14th century.  There is, however, very little recorded information concerning hemp in Finland, even from the 16th century.  However, the lack of written source material does not mean that hemp would not have been cultivated in Finland before this time.  Paleoecological and macro-fossil research, which have become more common during the last few years, have begun to establish earlier cultivation dates and broader geographic distributions of hemp cultivation in Finland.
    The oldest site of hemp cultivation in Finland is on Ahvenanmaa (a large island between Finland and Sweden).  In macro-fossil studies, hemp seeds were found in a habitation and burial complex near the present castle of Kastelholma.   They were dated from the Viking age (800-1050 AD).  Hemp seeds have been found in several southwestern excavations in Finland, dating from a long continuous period from 1100-1500 AD.  Hemp was a commercial commodity during that time.  Usually it was traded as fiber and not as seed.  Thus, the seed discoveries indicate that in this area, hemp was cultivated and not imported.
    An interesting discovery was made in Suojoki (county of Keuruu in Central Finland).  In the beginning of 1990, excavations were made in a boggy meadow bordering a lake where a large quantity of boat parts were found (e.g., main boat parts, planks, oars, etc.).  The cracks between the planks had been caulked with tarred hemp.  Hemp serves this purpose well, since it does not rot as quickly as flax.  The discoveries in Keuruu have been dated to be from the 13th century.   They are thought to be from early inhabitants of the 'Inner-Finland' wilderness of that time.  This population has been called the 'fishers and hunters' of the inland since they lived mostly by these means.  The latest paleoecological research shows that side by side with hunting and fishing, this population also practiced agriculture.   Previously, it was thought that land was cultivated only in Southern Finland during this time.

Sweden    Finland    Russia
Figure 1. Hemp cultivation in Finland, by county, in 1910.
1: Hemp grown on more than 0.6% of arable land,
2: Hemp grown on 0.4 to 0.6% of arable land.
3: Hemp grown on 0.2 to 0.4% of arable land.

Pollen analysis
    Hemp pollen is both easy and difficult to study.   It is carried by wind and found in the bottom of lakes and ponds located near cultivation.  Problems arise when trying to establish the difference between the pollen of hemp and that of hops, its botanical relative.  In most studies, hemp and hops are not separated from each other.  Instead, they have been reported as hops/hemp or Cannabaceae.  Hemp pollen is always a sign of its cultivation, since hemp has never grown wild in Finland.  Pollen from hops, however, is always from a wild plant, for only the female plants were cultivated and not the pollinating males.   Wild hops can also be a proof of human influence on nature, for the plant spread with people.  However, one cannot build a comprehensive picture of hemp's early history in Finland solely on the grounds of pollen analysis.
    Pollen from Cannabaceae, dating as far back as the year 4000 BC and from several periods before and after the year 2000 BC, was found in samples from Säkinlampi (a pond in the county of Hankasalmi in Central Finland) during 1994.   However, according to Dr. Virma Vuorela, these pollen samples were from wild hops.   The next time period showing pollen from Cannabaceae was from 500-600 AD.   This is also the time when pollen from cereal plants increased significantly.   This time period can be regarded as the beginning of stable agriculture in Hankasalmi and Central Finland.  It is possible that hemp was then cultivated in the area, although it is more likely that the plant in question was actually wild hops.
    Pollen found in the bottom sediments of Armijärvi of Hattula in the region of Häme (in the Finnish southwest) was dated in a pollen analysis to be from the year 570 AD.  The study, however, was unable to specify whether or not the plant in question was hemp or hops.  Again, this dates back to a time of major increase in pollen from cereal crops.  If the plant in question is hemp, its cultivation started with the beginning of established agricultural settlements.
    According to pollen studies, hemp became common in the region of Southern Savo (west of Southern Karelia) during the 15th and 16th centuries, and its cultivation was most widespread during the 18th century and into the beginning of the 19th century.  When estimating the culture of cultivation and the long history of hemp, the latter observation is especially remarkable.  It tells when hemp became "the plant of the whole population" and when its economical importance was at its greatest.

Current thought
    The main objective of pollen and macro-fossil studies is not to know the exact date of the earliest observations on cultivation but the main lines of development.  So far, the results can be summarized as follows.   Cultivating hemp in Finland is older than what has been formerly believed.  It is younger than the cultivation of cereals but, at least in Finland, its breakthrough and popularity began at about the same time as a period known as "the second expansion" of pioneer settlements during the 15th and 16th centuries.  This is when stable agricultural settlements became significantly more established.  In Central Finland, the beginning of agriculture, a period known as the "first expansion" roughly dates back to the years 500-700 AD.  It is possible that the "base population" practicing inland agriculture was already cultivating hemp but, at least so far, this has not been convincingly demonstrated.  In the old southwestern agricultural regions of Finland, hemp has been cultivated for at least 1,000 years, and maybe even over 1,500 years.
    Based on macro-fossil studies one might estimate that hemp cultivation may have spread into southwestern Finland through Central Europe, the Baltic or Scandinavian regions and not necessarily from Russia.  Hemp most certainly spread into Eastern Finland from Russia, as has been assumed to this day.  According to many researchers, the cultivation of hemp in Finland is older than that of flax.
    Paleoecological research is reshaping the entire history of settlements and agriculture in Finland.  A new assessment considering the whole country in this matter has yet to be done, even though a lot of local pilot studies have already begun.   When representative sites of the total area are eventually surveyed, the picture of early hemp history in Finland may also become clearer.

Regional expansion
    According to pollen studies and written sources the cultivation of hemp increased noticeably during the 18th century.  Its greatest expansion in Finland takes place in the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century.   By this time, hemp was already cultivated throughout most of the country.  Its cultivation was more common than flax.  Hemp was cultivated to a particularly large extent in Eastern Finland, where flax was almost unknown.  Hemp from Eastern Finland was taken, for example, to Pohjanmaa (a region located in the northwestern part of Finland).  In the region of Häme (central and southwestern Finland), hemp cultivation flourished in the same locations as flax cultivation.  In other words, hemp and flax were not excluding each other as alternatives.  In the region of Häme, one could even talk about particular fiber plant areas.  People from Häme sold flax and hemp into Southwestern and Western Finland.
    The most prominent core area for hemp cultivation was in Eastern Finland, in the Karelia and Savo regions.  The skill for its cultivation was also more highly developed there, when compared to Southern or Western Finland.  People from Eastern Finland knew to treat the male and female plants differently for optimal fiber production.  This knowledge was unknown to Western Finns.  Male hemp plants are shorter and mature earlier than female plants.  When the male plants were pulled out of the ground, two weeks before the females and treated separately, a finer fiber was obtained from the males.  In this way, Eastern Finns substituted the need for thinner fibers and finer fabrics from hemp instead of using flax.  In Western Finland all hemp plants were pulled up at the same time, discarding the dry and hardened males.
    Exact statistics on the regional cultivation of hemp , by county, only exists from the first Finnish agricultural census in 1910 (Figure 1).  Only those counties having at least five hectares of hemp cultivated per 1,000 Ha of arable land are included.  It is clear that in the beginning of the 20th century hemp was mostly cultivated in Eastern and Central Finland.  However, this was a period when hemp cultivation was already in a steep general decline.  In the long history of hemp cultivation, Southern and Western Finland were once planted much more densely.

Finnish use
    Hemp was a versatile plant in Finland.  Coarse yarn was spun from it after the fibers had been separated from the stalks.  Durable fabrics were woven from this yarn.  Eastern Finns, especially, wore primarily hemp clothes well into the 19th century.  Hemp was separated into different categories, according to fineness, and was made into linen, towels and table cloths, work cloths, etc.   Hemp twine was knit into fishing nets and sacks, and it was also good material for making sails.
    Until the post-Second World War era, hemp was the most abundant raw material in the world to make rope.  Being a plant with long and strong fibers, it was ideal for this purpose.  Water resistant hemp rope - especially if it was tarred - was well suited for damp and wet conditions.  Particularly large amounts of rope were needed during the period of sailing ships.  Until the late 19th century, ropes were made by hand.  Although the Englishman, Huddert, had already patented a rope twining machine in 1793, it was not used industrially in Europe until 1862.  Little by little, mechanical twining replaced twining by hand.  The latter method remained as a means of providing rope for the Finnish home needs or for small scale local sales well into the 20th century.  In some areas Finnish rope was still made by hand after the Second World War.
    Rag paper is an old Chinese invention.  In Finland its production was started in the middle of the 17th century from rags that were gathered from hemp and flax clothing.  Torn rags were beaten in water into a mass, out of which thin sheets of fiber were rolled out.  These were dried and pressed into paper.  Paper making, which had started as handwork, slowly developed into an industry.
    The first paper factory in Finland was established in Tervakoski in 1818.  It concentrated on making rag paper even after the use of wood as raw material became common in other Finnish paper factories during the 1860's.  Even during the period between the two World Wars, only rag paper was made in Tervakoski and the addition of wood fibers to rags was implemented only after the Second World War.
    Better, thinner and stronger paper is obtained from rags than from wood.  Until the time just after the Second World War, and to some extent until today, rag paper has been used for the production of the most demanding paper qualities required for fine printing (e.g., currency, bibles, stamp, and bonds), as well as exceptionally thin cigarette paper.  Most Finnish currency was printed on rag paper starting from the latter part of the 19th century.  The paper of modern money is still made of hemp and flax fibers.
    Since hemp and flax fibers were so well suited for paper making, why were they not made directly into paper, but only after they had been used as fabric?   Probably because it would have become too expensive, since processing hemp and flax into fiber was so labor intensive.  Rags and discarded clothes were cheaper fiber sources and more easily processed into paper mass than fibers taken directly from plants.   Flax fibers were not bought directly from farmers by Tervakoski factories before or during the Second World War and sources do not reveal to what extent rags were used or what part of those rags were hemp or flax.  Probably during the 19th century, and in the beginning of the 20th century, hemp was more widely used.  Most of the hemp rags were brought into Finland from Russia, which at that time was the largest producer of hemp in the world.  As the 20th century progressed, flax became increasingly more common.
    The oil pressed out of hemp seeds had been used in Finland, for example, as a lamp oil, a raw material for soap and in the production of varnish.

Decline of cultivation
    Practically speaking, hemp cultivation ended in Finland during the 1950's.  By the beginning of 1960's hemp was not grown any more, aside from some private farms for domestic needs.  However, the decline of hemp had started a lot earlier: in Southern Finland at the beginning of the 19th century, and on a national scale during the latter part of the 19th century.  First flax passed hemp as the most important fiber plant for home use, and then for the textile industry.  The use of flax was eventually replaced by cheaper cotton imports.  Also the commercialization of agriculture added to the decline of hemp cultivation.  When more wood began to be sold to bring in money, the labor intensive and time consuming chores associated with the cultivation of hemp and flax lost their appeal.  Modern fabrics and clothes could be more easily bought rather than made.
    Exact yearly records for the cultivation of fiber plants can not be obtained before the year 1920.  The development of the total area of cultivated fiber plants (hemp and flax) since the year 1920 is illustrated in the Figure 2.

Figure 2. Area of hemp and flax grown from 1920-1950 in hectares.

    During the 1920's fiber plant cultivation experienced a slight decline, which became steeper towards the end of the decade.  During the years of shortage in the beginning of the 1930's the cultivation of flax and hemp increased, but during the years of a strong economy at the end of the decade, cultivation turned towards a steep decline again.  During the shortage and regulations of the World War II years, people in Finland had to turn back to the cultivation of fiber plants.   But as soon as the restrictions were abolished, importation resumed and with more available money, production of hemp again declined sharply.  Figure 3 shows the ratio between the cultivation of hemp and flax, and illustrates how hemp cultivation clearly declined before the cultivation of flax.

Figure 3. Area of fibre plants in hectares.

New era?
    To be realistic, one must recognize that a large scale reintroduction of fiber plant cultivation - especially hemp - in Finland would not be an easy task.  The history of Finnish agriculture offers plenty of examples where areas of production have dwindled and lost their importance against cheaper imports.   Besides flax and hemp, other examples include the raising of goats (very common at one time), the raising of sheep (almost disappeared), the growing of buck wheat and the use of different kinds of roots in feeding cattle.
    It is difficult to rekindle the fire under a production area that has already declined, and which is also labor intensive.  Examples of this also exist in industry and in the crafts.  Now, even the cultivation of rye, which should be a sacred matter for Finnish culture, seems threatened in the new EU-Finland.  Even without obstacles (e.g., legal regulations), the hindsight of history implies that the task of reviving hemp cultivation will require new economic and ecologic ideals, which must then break through into Finnish agriculture and industry.  However, an interest towards blowing new life into hemp cultivation has already awakened in Finland.

    Translation from the original Finnish article, Hampun Historia Suomessa, was admirably performed by Anita Hemmilä.  Additional thanks are due to J. C. Callaway for proof-reading the manuscript.