The Toxic Alternative to Natural Fibers

The late 1920s and 1930s saw continuing consolidation of power into the hands of a few large steel, oil and chemical (munitions) companies. The U.S. federal government placed much of the textile production for the domestic economy in the hands of its chief munitions maker, DuPont.

The processing of nitrating cellulose into explosives is very similar to the process for nitrating cellulose into synthetic fibers and plastics. Rayon, the first synthetic fiber, is simply stabilized guncotton, or nitrated cloth, the basic explosive of the 19th Century.

"Synthetic plastics find application in fabricating a wide variety of articles, many of which in the past were made from natural products,* beamed Lammot DuPont (Popular Mechanics, June 1939, pg. 805).

"Consider our natural resources," the president of DuPont continued, "The chemist has aided in conserving natural resources by developing synthetic products to supplement or wholly replace natural products."

DuPont's scientists were the world's leading researchers into the processes of nitrating cellulose and were in fact the largest processor of cellulose in the nation in this era.

The February 1938 Popular Mechanics article stated "Thousands of tons of hemp hurds are used every year by one large powder company for the manufacture of dynamite and TNT." History sows that DuPont had largely cornered the market in explosives by buying up and consolidating the smaller blasting companies in the late 1800s. By 1902 it controlled about two-thirds of industry output.

They were the largest powder company, supplying 40 percent of the munitions for the allies in WWI. As cellulose and fiber researchers, DuPont's chemists knew hemp's true value better than anyone else. The value of hemp goes far beyond linen fibers; although recognized for linen, canvas, netting and cordage, these long fibers are only 20 percent of the hempstalk's weight. Eighty percent of the hemp is in the 77 percent cellulose hurd, and this was the most abundant, cleanest resource of cellulose (fiber) for paper, plastics and even rayon.

The empirical evidence in this book shows that the federal government -through the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act - allowed this munitions maker to supply synthetic fibers for the domestic economy without competition. The proof of a successful conspiracy among these corporate and governing interests is simply this: in 1997 DuPont was still the largest producer of man-made fibers, while no American citizen has legally harvested a single acre of textile grade hemp in over 60 years (except during the period of WWII).

An almost unlimited tonnage of natural fiber and cellulose would have become available to the American farmer in 1937, the year DuPont patented nylon and the polluting wood-pulp paper sulfide process. All of hemp's potential value was lost.

Simple plastics of the early 1900s were made of nitrated cellulose, directly related to DuPont's munitions-making process. Celluloid, acetate and rayon were the simple plastics of that era, and hemp was well known to cellulose researchers as the premier resource for this new industry to use. Worldwide, the raw material of simple plastics, rayon and paper could be best supplied by hemp hurds.

Nylon fibers were developed between 1926-1937 by the noted Harvard chemist Wallace Carothers, working from German patents. These polyamides are long fibers based on observed natural products. Carothers, supplied with an open-ended research grant from DuPont, made a comprehensive study of natural cellulose fibers. He duplicated natural fibers in his labs and polyamides - long fibers of a specific chemical process - were developed. (Curiously, Wallace Carothers committed suicide one week after the House Ways and Means Committee, in April of 1937, had the hearings on cannabis and created the bill that would eventually outlaw hemp.)

Coal tar and petroleum-based chemicals were employed, and different devices, spinnerets and processes were patented. This new type of textile, nylon, was to be controlled from the raw material stage, as coal, to the completed product: a patented chemical product. The chemical company centralized the production and profits of the new "miracle" fiber. The introduction of nylon, the introduction of high-volume machinery to separate hemp's long fiber from the cellulose hurd, and the outlawing of hemp as "marijuana" all occurred simultaneously.

The new man-made fibers (MMFs) can best be described as war material. The fiber-making process has become one based on big factories, smokestacks, coolants and hazardous chemicals, rather than one of stripping out the abundant, naturally available fibers.

Coming from a history of making explosives and munitions, the old "chemical dye plants" now produce hosiery, mock linens, mock canvas, latex paint and synthetic carpets. Their polluting factories make imitation leather, upholstery and wood surfaces, while an important part of the natural cycle stands outlawed.

The standard fiber of world history, America's traditional crop, hemp, could provide our textiles and paper and be the premier source for cellulose. The war industries - DuPont, Allied Chemical, Monsanto, etc., - are protected from competition by the marijuana laws. They make war on the natural cycle and the common farmer.

- Shan Clark

Sources:

Encyclopedia of Textiles 3rd Edition by the editors of American Fabrics and Fashions Magazine, William C. Legal, Publisher Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1980; The Emergence of Industrial America Strategic Factors in American Economic Growth Since 1870, Peter George State University, NY; DuPont (a corporate autobiography published periodically by E.I. DuPont DeNemours and Co., Inc. Wilmington, DE); The Blasting Handbook, E.I. DuPont DeNemours and Co., Inc., Wilmington, DE; Mechanical Engineering Magazine, Feb. 1938; Popular Mechanics, Feb 1938; Journal of Applied Polymer Science, Vol. 47, 1984; Polyamides, the Chemistry of Long Molecules (author unknown) U.S. Patent #2,071,250 (Feb. 16, 1937), W.H. Carothers, DuPont Dynasties, Jerry Colby; The American Peoples Encyclopedia, the Sponsor Press, Chicago, 1953.

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