Most people probably think of salt as simply that white granular food seasoning found in a salt shaker on virtually every dining table.
It is that, surely, but it is far more. It is an essential element in the diet of not only humans but of animals, and even of many plants. It is one of the most effective and most widely used of all food preservatives (and used to preserve Egyptian mummies as well). Pre-civilization "salt men" represent a significant contemporary archeological research source. And the oldest as well. Its industrial and other uses are almost without number. In fact, salt has great current as well as historical interest, and is even the subject of humorous cartoons, music, "art" and poetry.
Sometimes, however, we need to separate the salt to get the history. And there's a lot of history to get. There's even a 2002 book by Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History
The fact is that throughout history, salt--called sodium chloride by chemists--has been such an important element of life that it has been the subject of many stories, fables and folktales (such as "Salt on a Magpie's Tail" from Sweden) and is frequently referenced in fairy tales. Some cultures ascribe magical powers to salt. Charles Dickens penned a Victorian era Ghost Story "To Be Taken With A Grain of Salt." Forty years later, author George Gissing's last book was "The Salt of the Earth." Salt so infuses our culture that there are innumerable quotes drawing on salt. There is even a current "Words of Salt" literary competition, keeping alive the link between salt and culture.
Salt served as money at various times and places, and it has been the cause of bitter warfare. Offering bread and salt to visitors, in many cultures, is traditional etiquette. It is used in making pottery. While we have records of the importance of salt in commerce in Medieval times and earlier, in some places like the Sahara and Nepal, salt trading today gives a glimpse of what life may have been like centuries ago. Alchemists use the square symbol to represent salt. "Salt," is common in the jargon of other professions.
Unsurprisingly, evidence shows salt was important as long ago as when mastadons roamed the earth. Salt was in general use long before history, as we know it, began to be recorded. Some 2,700 years B.C.-about 4,700 years ago-there was published in China the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu
, probably the earliest known treatise on pharmacology. A major portion of this writing was devoted to a discussion of more than 40 kinds of salt, including descriptions of two methods of extracting salt and putting it in usable form that are amazingly similar to processes used today. Chinese folklore recounts the discovery of salt. Salt production has been important in China for two millenia or more. Nomads spreading westward were known to carry salt. Ancient saltmaking in Europe and North America is well-documented
Egyptian art from as long ago as 1450 B.C. records salt-making. More recent examples are drawings of a 15th century French salt evaporation plant, a 16th century Persian picture of a Kurdish salt merchant and a 17th century Italian print offering instructions in distilling salt.
Salt was of crucial importance economically. A far-flung trade in ancient Greece involving exchange of salt for slaves gave rise to the expression, "not worth his salt." The Romans were prodigious builders of saltworks as well as other vital infrastructure (for example, in Poland and England). Special salt rations given early Roman soldiers were known as "salarium argentum," the forerunner of the English word "salary." References to salt abound in languages around the globe, particularly regarding salt used for food. From the Latin "sal," for example, comes such other derived words as "sauce" and "sausage." Salt was an important trading commodity carried by explorers. Countries like Japan without salt deposits feel disadvantaged.
Salt has played a vital part in religious ritual in many cultures, symbolizing immutable, incorruptible purity. There are more than 30 references to salt in the Bible and both the Bible and the Talmud contain insights into salt's cultural significance in Jewish society. Salt has earned a reference in the Catholic Encyclopedia
, using expressions like "salt of the earth". And there are many other literary and religious references to salt, including use of salt on altars representing purity, and use of "holy salt" by the Unification Church. Using salt as an indicator, some claim some of the Lost Tribes of Israel went to Japan. (Visitors: feel free to click on the "e-mail Salt Institute" icon at the bottom of the page and share additional such references).
Saltmaking encompasses much of the history of Europe since Roman times. In the United Kingdom, particularly in the Cheshire area salt reigns supreme. Consider visiting the Salt Museum or Lion Salt Works both in Cheshire. Salt was important to Victorian England's chemical industry. Medieval European records document saltmaking technologies and concessions. On the Continent, Venice rose to economic greatness through its salt monopoly. Further north, Halle is Germany's "Salt City" and an "old salt route" connected German salt mines to shipping ports on the Baltic; modern tourists also track ancient German salt history. And World War II historians record how the Nazis plundered European artworks and secreted them in salt mines. Near Hitler's retreat at Berchtesgaden, saltmaking has been important for centuries. Saltmaking was important in the Adriatic/Balkans region as well (the present border between Slovenia and Croatia) where Tuzla in Bosnia-Herzegovina is actually named for "tuz," the Turkish word for salt. So is Salzburg, Austria, which has made its four salt mines major tourist attractions.
The grand designs of Philip II of Spain came undone through the Dutch Revolt at the end of the 16th Century; one of the keys, according to Montesquieu, was the successful Dutch blockade of Iberian saltworks which led directly to Spanish bankruptcy. France has always been a major producer of salt, both on its Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. France, in fact, has a "salt road" along its Mediterranean coast. In the flowering of French neo-classicism in the 18th century, "The Ideal City of Chaux" was centered on the royal saltworks. Any discussion of saltmaking and distribution in France includes discussion of the gabelle (see below), the salt tax which was a significant cause of the French Revolution. In Spain, while Basques' salt involvement is usually thought of as their being intrepid cod-fisherman on the Grand Banks, salting their catch for European markets, Basque country also has its own salt route. Many Americans evoke an image from the phrase "Siberian salt mines," but saltmaking takes place in many places in Russia. Generations of salt miners in Poland have carved a national treasure in the Wieliczka take a tour, #17 of this salt mine near Kracow, long an object of travelers' interest and even the venue for unforgettable weddings today. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is assisting in protecting this treasure.
In the Middle East, the Jordanian town of As-Salt, located on the road between Amman and Jerusalem, was known as Saltus in Byzantine times and was the seat of a bishopric. Later destroyed by the Mongols it was rebuilt by the Mamluke sultan Baybars I in the 13th century; the ruins of his fortress remain today.
Indian history recalls the prominent role of salt. There was even a caste of salt-diggers. During British colonial days, salt motivated the Great Hedge ( 1 2 ) and its role in the British salt starvation policy, and Mahatma Ghandi's resistance to British colonial rule (see below).
Salt played a key role in the history of West Africa particularly during the great trading empire of Mali (13th - 16th Centuries) -- and it still does, even being used as a fund-raising idea!-- and in East Africa.
Salt has played a prominent role in the European exploration of the Americas and subsequent American history, Canadian history and Mexican history as well. The first Native Americans "discovered" by Europeans in the Caribbean were harvesting sea salt as on St. Maarten, typical of other Caribbean islands like Anguilla. The Hopi in the US Southwest had ceremonial salt mines. When the major European fishing fleets discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland at the end of the 15th Century, the Portuguese and Spanish fleets used the "wet" method of salting their fish onboard, while the French and English fleets used the "dry" or "shore" salting method of drying their catch on racks onshore; thus, the French and British fishermen became the first European inhabitants of northern North America since the Vikings a half-century earlier. Had it not been for the practice of salting fish, Europeans might have confined their fishing to the coasts of Europe and delayed "discovery" of the "New World." In South America, Columbian salt miners have protected a unique resource at Zipaquira. The history of salt-making in the Netherlands Antilles reflects the often-harsh period of colonial conquest. Bolivia's salt producing region is a tourist attraction with one hotel constructed entirely of salt. And tourists today visit ancient Incan salt mines and the unique beauty of Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni.
Salt motivated the American pioneers. The American Revolution had heroes who were saltmakers (see Andrew Donnally, Sr. - and his photo) and part of the British strategy was to deny the American rebels access to salt. And salt was on the mind of William Clark in the pathbreaking Lewis & Clark Expedition to the Pacific Northwest; their Pacific saltworks, Fort Clatsop, is now a national memorial. The first patent issued by the British crown to an American settler gave Samuel Winslow of the Massachusetts Bay Colony the exclusive right for ten years to make salt by his particular method, and Massachusetts continued to make salt through colonial times into the 19th century. The Land Act of 1795 included a provision for salt reservations (to prevent monopolies) as did an earlier (1778) treaty between the Iroquois' Onondaga tribe and the state of New York. New York has always been important in salt production. The famed Erie Canal, opened in 1825, was known as "the ditch that salt built" because salt, a bulky product presenting major transportation difficulties, originally was its principal cargo. Syracuse, NY, is to this day proud of its salt history and its nickname: "Salt City." Similarly, salt played a vital role in the industrialization of West Virginia as recorded in the 2004 video "Red Salt and Reynolds" (1.3 MB excerpt courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). Salt production has been important in Michigan, Texas, West Virginia and Kansas for more than a century. Salt played an important role on the U.S. frontier, including areas like Hannibal, Missouri, Illinois, Utah, California and Nebraska (search on "salt") which no longer have commercial salt production. Saltmaking in San Francisco Bay has been important for more than a century.
Salt played a key role in the U.S. Civil War and on the the present. Early in the war, Union forces captured key Confederate saltworks in Louisiana and Grand Saline, Texas. Then, finally, in December, 1864, Union forces made a forced march and fought a 36-hour battle to capture Saltville, Virginia, after earlier attacks had failed. Saltville was the site of the Confederacy's last important salt processing plant, essential to sustaining the South's beleaguered armies. Two years earlier, federal troops targeted a Florida saltworks. Civilian distress over the lack of salt in the wartime Confederacy undermined rebel homefront morale too. Salt was critical to locating the city of Lincoln, Nebraska and West Virginia claims salt as its first mineral industry. The important role of salt in Kansas history will be captured in the Kansas Underground Salt Museum scheduled to open in September 2005 in Hutchinson, KS. The vast distances in the American West sometimes required passage over extensive salt flats. In Canada, Windsor Salt is more than a century old. In the American West, a "salt war" was fought at El Paso, TX, the Saline Valley in California's Inyo mountains has a "salty" history, and we know that Nevada was not known only as a silver state. Many cities, counties, land features and other landmarks reflect the importance of salt. Salt, of course, has many uses; some techniques using salt such as production of "salt prints" in 19th Century photography, have been superseded by new technologies -- others have not. Several salt prints are viewable online. Not all American "salt history" is so old, either. Salt-glazed pottery is still popular. Salt is even associated with the struggle for women's rights in the U.S.
Salt also had military significance. For instance, it is recorded that thousands of Napoleon's troops died during his retreat from Moscow because their wounds would not heal as a result of a lack of salt. In 1777, the British Lord Howe was jubilant when he succeeded in capturing General Washington's salt supply. And, in the aftermath of war, restoring a war-ravaged nation's salt production is a priority in reconstruction as illustrated in post-W.W. II Japan.
Similarly, throughout history the essentiality of salt has subjected it to governmental monopoly and special taxes. The Chinese, like many other governments over time, realizing that everyone needed to consume salt, created a government salt monopoly, and made salt taxes a major revenue source, and manipulated salt tax rates to encourage certain activities. Salt taxes were one of the complaints leading to toppling China's Imperial government in the early 20th Century and remain important in China today (as well as an inducement to salt smuggling). Salt taxes long supported British monarchs and thousands of Britishers were imprisoned for smuggling salt; British salt regulations were often in controversy. American revolutionary publicist Thomas Paine complained of English salt taxes. French kings developed a salt monopoly by selling exclusive rights to produce it to a favored few who exploited that right to the point where the scarcity of salt, and the gabelle, the salt tax, was a major contributing cause of the French Revolution. The magnitude of the gabelle is mind-boggling. From 1630 to 1710, the tax increased tenfold from 14 times the cost of production to 140 times the cost of production, according to Pierre Laszlo in his book Salt: Grain of Life
(Columbia Univ. Press). Similarly, the Russian Czars' salt taxes were an important revenue source. In modern times, Mahatma Ghandi defied British salt laws as a means of mobilizing popular support for self-rule in India. Even today, salt taxes in India are politically controversial. Ghandi's resistance on salt has been the model for other non-violent efforts to change policy.
In short, the innocuous looking, white granular substance we know today as "salt" historically has been so essential to all life as to be of the utmost value. We are fortunate, indeed, that in the United States it has never been subjected to discriminatory taxes, and that in North America it is plentiful and one of the most easily obtainable and least expensive of our necessities. History of Salt Production in the United States.
Reports from Onondaga, New York in 1654 indicated the Onondaga Indians made salt by boiling brine from salt springs. Colonial Americans were making salt by boiling brine in iron kettles during the time the U.S. Constitution was drafted. By the time of the Civil War, 3,000 workers produced over 225,000 short tons of salt by boiling. Settlers reported that native Americans made salt at Kanawha, West Virginia before 1755 by boiling brine from salt springs. Large scale salt production from brine springs was underway by 1800, and the process of drilling for more concentrated brine began within a few years. The Kanawha valley supplied the Confederacy with salt during the Civil War, when production peaked.
Similar events occurred at Avery Island, Louisiana. Historians believe that native Americans produced salt from salt springs more than 500 years before the arrival of Europeans. Salt produced by boiling brine supplied salt during the war of 1812. Full scale production in open pits or quarries began in 1862, during the Civil War, and the first underground salt mine was started in 1869 with the sinking of a shaft.
Solar salt was produced during the early 1800s in less than ideal climates, by building movable, covered sheds over the evaporating pans, protecting the salt and brine from precipitation. Solar salt making began on San Francisco Bay, California in 1770 and at the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1847. During the 1830s on Cape Cod there were 442 salt works.
Mechanical evaporation in multiple effect open "grainer" pans began in about 1833, along with methods to purify the brine before evaporation. Salt makers could produce a clean, white, desirable salt product. Further developments during the 1800s at Silver Springs, New York, produced the concept of crystallizing salt in enclosed vacuum pans.
Salt was produced between 1790 and 1860 in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri by boiling brine in salt furnaces. Waste wood products from the lumber industry supplied low cost fuel to produce salt from salt springs at Saginaw and St. Clair, Michigan during the mid-1800s. Drillers found a rock salt deposit at St. Clair, Michigan in 1882, providing nearly saturated brine to feed the evaporators. Solution mining of rock salt deposits spread rapidly throughout the salt producing states. When rock salt deposits were reached by drilling, conventional underground mining soon followed. Salt mining continues today throughout North America in Kansas, Louisiana, Ohio, New York, Texas, Ontario, New Brunswick (potash and salt), Quebec, and Nova Scotia.
Salt production in Kansas, Utah, Louisiana, New York, Ohio and Michigan in the U.S. has enriched local history and culture. Salt mining under the City of Detroit, Michigan has been a long-standing activity. Detroit Salt Company has some interesting history online as do the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.
Several salt companies post interesting company histories on their websites, including Cargill Salt, Morton Salt, United Salt, Exportadora de Sal, British Salt, Cheetham Salt, Refinaria Nacional de Sal, United Swiss Saltworks, Italkali and Mines de Sel.
Other websites have information about the history of salt production and use in various countries, including.
- British Virgin Islands (Salt Island)
- Sri Lanka
For detailed information about the history of salt, you'll want to consult the International Commission for the History of Salt; in particular note its bibiographic list. Don't miss Mark Kurlansky's book: Salt: A World History
(and read some fascinating historical and cultural tidbits from book reviews). The British Salt Manufacturers Association website has information on the history of salt, particularly in the British Isles. And don't miss the MR Bloch Salt Archive "Salt Made the World Go Round."
For more info and related link, please go here: www.saltinstitute.org/38.html