Ever hear this one? The old urban legend that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp (marijuana) paper)? Well, some urban legends are true, and some are false, but this is an urban legend that is pretty much true. Not 100% completely, but true enough.
The truth derives from the fact that until 1883, 75% to 90% of all paper in the world was made from cannabis hemp fiber. The hemp plant is a very versatile plant, which could (and still does) make many different things. It is used in shampoos, fabrics, and medical drugs (medicinal marijuana and Marinol). It is also used to make rope and makes an alternative fuel. But paper is the material it was most widely used for.
The paper made out of hemp is of much greater quality than that made out of cotton, and it lasts longer. A few hundred years ago, Bibles, maps, paper money, stocks and bonds, and newspapers were all written on hemp paper. In those days, they couldn't make paper from trees like they do today.
(Image credit: Flickr user kat_geb)
The famous writings written on hemp paper include:
The Gutenberg Bible (15th century).
The King James Bible (17th century).
Thomas Paine's pamphlets: The Rights of Man, Common Sense, and The Age of Reason.
The works of Mark Twain, Alexander Dumas, and Victor Hugo.
And Lewis Carroll's beloved Alice in Wonderland.
All these were written on hemp paper, as was just about everything else at the time.
Now, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence (shown at top) was, indeed, written on Dutch hemp paper (June 28, 1776). The second draft was, too. This second draft was written on July 2, 1776. This was the draft agreed to and announced and released on the immortal date of July 4, 1776. The printed broadside is to the right.
Then on July 19, 1776, Congress ordered the Declaration of Independence be copied and engrossed on parchment (a prepared animal skin). This was the famous document signed by the delegates on August 2, 1776. So, this "original" Declaration of Independence was engrossed on parchment (animal skin treated with lime).
This treated animal skin parchment stretches out and has a long-lasting quality. This is why the Declaration of Independence is in such good condition when we view it today. So, just to clarify completely: the original two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.
Yes, this is the hemp plant whose buds yield the infamous marijuana.
But "the" Declaration of Independence we all know and love was actually not.