Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Hemp Brake

While in Kentucky last week I was excited to get to briefly visit both the Kentucky History Center and the Frankfort City Museum. These museums offer a wealth of knowledge on their individual subjects and have some neat artifacts I haven't seen elsewhere.

One item that caught my attention and that was displayed in both museums was a hemp brake. I knew very little about hemp, how important hemp was to Kentucky's economy before the Civil War, or even how a hemp break operated. But, by reading the museum's labels and doing a little online research I am now much better informed on this interesting plant, its significance, and how it was processed.

I had always assumed that hemp and marijuana was one in the same, but I found out that hemp grown for industrial use is quite a bit different than its drug cousin. Both plants are in the cannabis family, but hemp has only minute amounts of THC that the psychoactive cannabis contains. One website said that, "If one tried to ingest enough industrial hemp to get a 'buzz,' it would be the equivalent of taking 2-3 doses of a high fiber laxative." Another said that there is not enough THC in industrial hemp to have any physical or psychological effects. Interesting.

Hemp growing has a long history in American. George Washington grew hemp; as did Thomas Jefferson. In fact, Jefferson invented a hemp brake of his own for use at Monticello. Hemp was first grown in Kentucky in the 1770s, and due to the state's climate and soil, especially in the Bluegrass Region, hemp thirved as an agricultural product. In 1850 Kentucky produced 40,000 tons of hemp that was valued at $5,000,000.00. Now, I don't know what the translates to in today's dollars, but believe me, that was a load of money 160 years ago.

Hemp in the antebellum era was used for a number of items. One of the most popular uses was rope, especially for sailing vessels. Other uses included course cloth and bagging used in gathering and then bailing cotton for market. Hemp made up about 5% of the total weight of a cotton bale and the hemp growers fortunes relied heavily on the ebb and flow of the cotton market of the states in the Deep South. As the country expanded westward so did hemp growing. By 1860 Missouri had displaced Kentucky as the nation's leading producer of hemp. The Civil War disrupted hemp production in Kentucky and Missouri as their commercial ties to the cotton states was cut off. Although hemp production continued up to the 1940s and 50s it fell off significantly due to the introduction of jute, tariffs, and drug legislation aimed at hemp's similar looking cousin marijuana.

The hemp brake works much the same way a flax break works. Hemp had to first be cut and then shocked into bundles to dry. When the hemp was sufficiently seasoned it was taken by the armload and laid across the break while the operator moved the brake handle up and down repeatedly. I imagine this was back breaking work that would built up some serious deltoid and triceps muscles. As the brake was moved up and down it crashed into the stalks and the woody outer shell would fall away leaving the long stands of fiber. The stands then would be gathered and ran through a set of "hackles" (a set of spikes) to comb the fibers into usable product. For rope production the fibers were then twisted, and for cloth production they were of course woven. I have seen this process completed for flax at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia, and it is just tiring to watch it let alone perform it for hours and hours a day.

The hemp brake is just another relic of the past that we have largely forgotten. Its use is hardly applicable to our world today, but understanding what it is and how it worked gives us greater insight into the lives of our ancestors; some of which relied on such tools to provide for their families.


  1. If you ever handle hemp rope you will remember it. Old fashioned hemp rope felt like it was all sharp needles or a very coarse sand paper. It sort of made a man not want to touch it.

  2. Especially around the neck as a noose. What a deterrent, right? Thanks for the comment,

  3. Nice Picture. If you have netflix, watch "Hempsters"

  4. We recently got a HEMP BREAK at the antique mall where I work.
    It took me awhile to identify it's purpose.
    Would anyone have an idea as to the best way to markt this item.
    I hate just to leave it to chance. Approximate value?

  5. The Coat of Arms of the British 'Hampson' family includes three Hemp Brakes