Table of Contents:
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). Its industrial and other uses are almost without number. In fact, salt has great current as well as historical interest, even the subject of humorous cartoons and poetry and useful in film-making. Sometimes, however, we need to separate the salt to get the 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 and is frequently referenced in fairy tales. It 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.
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 millennia or more. And the Chinese, like many other governments over time, realizing that everyone needed to consume salt, made salt taxes a major revenue source. Nomads spreading westward were known to carry salt. Egyptian art from as long ago as 1450 B.C. records salt-making.
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." 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, come such other derived words as "sauce" and "sausage." Salt was an important trading commodity carried by explorers.
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, 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.
Saltmaking encompasses much of the history of the United Kingdom, particularly in the Cheshire area. Medieval European records document saltmaking concessions. On the Continent, Venice rose to economic greatness through its salt monopoly. 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. Bolivia's salt producing region is a tourist attraction with one hotel constructed entirely of salt and fascinating salt-bearing caravans of llamas. 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. Saltmaking was -- and is -- important in Holland as well. France has always been a major producer of salt and any discussion of saltmaking and distribution in France includes discussion of the gabelle, the salt tax which was a significant cause of the French Revolution, but salt remains important today. 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). Many Americans evoke an image from the phrase "Siberian salt mines," but saltmaking takes place in many places in Russia. 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 (including the Great Hedge and its role in the British salt starvation policy) and Mahatma Gandhi’s resistance to British colonial rule. 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!
Salt has played a prominent role in the European exploration of North America 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. 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."
Salt motivated the American pioneers. The American Revolution had heroes who were saltmakers 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. 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. 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." Salt production has been important in Michigan and West Virginia for more than a century. Salt played an important role on the U.S. frontier, including areas like Illinois and Nebraska which no longer have commercial salt production.
Salt played a key role in the Civil War and on the the present. In December, 1864, Union forces made a forced march and fought a 36-hour battle to capture Saltville, Virginia, the site of an important salt processing plant thought essential to sustaining the South's beleaguered armies. 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 a new salt museum 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 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.
Similarly, throughout history the essentiality of salt has subjected it to governmental monopoly and special taxes. Salt taxes long supported British monarchs and thousands of Britishers were imprisoned for smuggling salt. 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 was a major contributing cause of the French Revolution. In modern times, Mahatma Gandhi defied British salt laws as a means of mobilizing popular support for self-rule in India. In recent years, the promotion of free trade through the World Trade Organization has led to abolition of many national monopolies, for example, in Taiwan.
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 StatesReports 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. Branding by Morton has made it a highly-recognized name in American commerce. Salt mining under the City of Detroit, Michigan has been a long-standing activity.