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As far back as 6050 BC, salt has been an important and integral part of the world’s history, as it has been interwoven into countless civilizations. Used as a part of Egyptian religious offerings and valuable trade between the Phoenicians and their Mediterranean empire, salt and history have been inextricably intertwined for millennia, with great importance placed on salt by many different cultures. Even today, the history of salt touches our daily lives. The word “salary” was derived from the word “salt.” Salt was highly valued and its production was legally restricted in ancient times, so it was historically used as a method of trade and currency. The word “salad” also originated from “salt,” and began with the early Romans salting their leafy greens and vegetables. Undeniably, the history of salt is both broad and unique, leaving its indelible mark in cultures across the globe.
Most people probably think of salt as simply that white granular seasoning found in saltshakers 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. Its industrial and other uses are almost without number. Salt has great current interest as the subject of humorous cartoons, poetry and filmmaking.
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, folktales and 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. While records show the importance of salt in commerce in medieval times and earlier, in some places like the Sahara and in Nepal, salt trading today gives a glimpse of what life may have been like centuries ago.
Salt was in general use long before the beginning of recorded history, and dating back to around 2700 B.C. the earliest known treatise on pharmacology was published in China. A major portion of this writing is devoted to a discussion of more than 40 kinds of salt, including descriptions of two methods of salt extraction that are similar to processes used today. Salt production has been important in China for two millennia or more, and the Chinese, like many other governments over time, realized that taxing salt would could be a major revenue source. Nomads spreading westward were known to carry salt, and Egyptian art from as long ago as 1450 B.C. records salt making.
Salt was of crucial importance economically. The expression “not worth his salt” stems from the practice of trading slaves for salt in ancient Greece. Special salt rations given to early Roman soldiers were known as “salarium argentum,” the forerunner of the English word “salary.” References to salt can be found 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 purity. There are more than 30 references to salt in the Bible, including the well-known expression “salt of the earth.” Additionally, 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.
Salt making encompasses much of the history of the United Kingdom, particularly in the Cheshire area. Medieval European records document salt making concessions. In continental Europe, Venice rose to economic greatness through its salt monopoly. Salt making was important in the Adriatic/Balkans region as well (the present border between Slovenia and Croatia); in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tuzla is actually named for “tuz,” the Turkish word for salt. The same is true for Salzburg, Austria, which has made its four salt mines major tourist attractions. Similarly in Bolivia, the main salt producing region is a tourist attraction and includes one hotel constructed entirely of salt. 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 salt works, which led directly to Spanish bankruptcy. Salt making was (and still is) important in Holland, as well. France has always been a major producer of salt and any discussion of salt making and distribution in France includes discussion of the gabelle, the salt tax that was a significant contributor to the French Revolution. The salt remains just as important today. The magnitude of the gabelle is astounding; from 1630 to 1710, the tax increased 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). You may be familiar with the phrase: “Siberian salt mines,” although salt making takes place in many places across 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. Additionally, 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 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. Due to this early food processing, French and British fishermen became the first European inhabitants of 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 salt makers and part of the British strategy was to deny the American rebels access to salt. Salt was on the mind of William Clark in the groundbreaking Lewis and 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 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, was its principal cargo. Syracuse, NY, is 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, although they no longer have commercial salt production.
Salt played a key role in the Civil War, as well. In 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 morale, too. The important role of salt in the history of Kansas is captured in a 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 known as more than 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, but others have not. However, not all American “salt history” is so old. 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 due to the lack of salt. In 1777, the British Lord Howe was jubilant when he succeeded in capturing General Washington’s salt supply.
Similarly throughout history, salt has been subjected to governmental monopoly and special 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 that the scarcity of salt contributed to the French Revolution. Salt taxes long supported British monarchs and thousands of British people were imprisoned for smuggling salt. 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.
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 that the U.S. Constitution was being drafted. By the time of the Civil War, thousands of workers were producing 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, which protected 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 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 very recognizable name in American commerce. Salt mining under the city of Detroit, Michigan has been a long-standing activity.
Salt has long held an important place in religion and culture. Greek worshippers consecrated salt in their rituals. Jewish Temple offerings included salt; on the Sabbath, people of the Jewish faith still dip their bread in salt as a remembrance of those sacrifices. In the Old Testament, Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt. Author Sallie Tisdale notes that salt is as free as the water suspending it when it’s dissolved, and as immutable as stone when it’s dry.
Covenants in both the Old and New Testaments were often sealed with salt: the origin of the word “salvation.” In the Catholic Church, salt is or has been used in a variety of purification rituals. In fact, until Vatican II, a small taste of salt was placed on a baby’s lip at his or her baptism. Jesus called his disciples “the Salt of the Earth.” In Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper,” Judas has just spilled a bowl of salt, which is known as a portent of evil and bad luck. To this day, the tradition endures that when people spill salt, they should throw a pinch over their left shoulders to ward off any devils that may be lurking behind.
In Buddhist tradition, salt repels evil spirits, which is why it is customary to throw salt over your shoulder before entering your house after a funeral: it scares off any evil spirits that may be clinging to your back.
Shinto religion also uses salt to purify an area. Before sumo wrestlers enter the ring for a match—which is actually an elaborate Shinto rite—a handful of salt is thrown into the center to drive off malevolent spirits.
In the Southwest, the Puebloans worship the Salt Mother. Other native tribes had significant restrictions on who was permitted to eat salt. Hopi legend holds that the angry Warrior Twins punished mankind by placing valuable salt deposits far from civilization, requiring hard work and bravery to harvest the precious mineral.
In 1933, the Dalai Lama was buried sitting up in a bed of salt.
Today, a gift of salt endures in India as a potent symbol of good luck and a reference to Mahatma Gandhi’s liberation of India, which included a symbolic walk to the sea to gather tax-free salt for the nation’s poor.
As a precious and portable commodity, salt has long been a cornerstone of economies throughout history. In fact, researcher M.R. Bloch conjectured that civilization began along the edges of the desert because of the natural surface deposits of salt found there. Bloch also believed that the first war, likely fought near the ancient city of Essalt on the Jordan River, could have been fought over the city’s precious salt supplies.
In 2200 BC, the Chinese emperor Hsia Yu levied one of the first known taxes, which was a tax on salt. In Tibet, Marco Polo noted that tiny cakes of salt were pressed with images of the Grand Khan and used as coins. Salt is still used as money among the nomads of Ethiopia’s Danakil Plains.
Greek slave traders often bartered salt for slaves, giving rise to the expression that someone was “not worth his salt.” Roman legionnaires were paid in salt—salarium, the Latin origin of the word “salary.”
Merchants in 12th century Timbuktu, the gateway to the Sahara Desert and the seat of scholars, valued salt as highly as books and gold.
In France, Charles of Anjou levied the gabelle, a salt tax, in 1259 to finance his conquest of the Kingdom of Naples. Outrage over the gabelle fueled the French Revolution. Though the revolutionaries eliminated the tax shortly after Louis XVI fell, the Republic of France reestablished the gabelle in the early 19th Century; only in 1946 was it removed from the books.
The Erie Canal, an engineering marvel that connected the Great Lakes to New York’s Hudson River in 1825, was called “the ditch that salt built.” Salt tax revenues paid for half the cost of construction of the canal.
The British monarchy supported itself with high salt taxes, leading to a bustling black market for the white crystal. In 1785, the earl of Dundonald wrote that every year in England, 10,000 people were arrested for salt smuggling. Protesting British rule in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a 200-mile march to the Arabian Ocean to collect untaxed salt for India’s poor.
The effects of salt deficiency are highlighted in times of war, when human bodies and national economies are strained to their limits.
Thousands of Napoleon’s troops died during the French retreat from Moscow due to inadequate wound healing and lowered resistance to disease—the results of salt deficiency.
Salt production facilities in Virginia and Louisiana were early targets of the Union Army. The North fought for 36 hours to capture Saltville, Virginia, where the salt works were considered crucial to the Rebel army. So crucial, that Confederate President Jefferson Davis offered to waive military service to anyone willing to tend coastal salt kettles to supply the South’s war effort. In addition to dietary salt, the Confederacy needed the precious mineral to tan leather, dye cloth for uniforms and preserve meat.
Since its discovery several thousand years ago, salt has profoundly affected human life, not just with food consumption and preservation, but also in the human, economic, mythological and religious spheres. Salt was a greatly appreciated exchange commodity, so much so that the “salt routes” were born, through which merchants transported and sold it in countries where it was not produced.
Some sources have confirmed the presence of salt trading back in prehistoric times. The Phoenician people proved to be masters in the extraction and trading of salt, but it was the Romans who truly exploitated the processing of salt and subsequent trade in a worldwide network.
The production and the transport of salt gave rise to new cities and to the construction of roads; such is the case of Salzburg—literally the “city of salt”—and of the via Salaria (the road of salt) in Italy. Until very recently, a tax was imposed on salt in numerous countries, but it has largely lost its importance today. Until 1975 in Italy this tax was collected through fiscal monopolies and the imposition of import customs. The State had a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of salt, and fixed the final market price, which included the tax rate of about 70% of the selling price. Discount prices were fixed on salt for agricultural and industrial uses, while its production was tax-free in Sicily, Sardinia and in the towns of Olivigno and Campione d’Italia.
Most ancient civilizations were accompanied by myths, religious and magic rites involving salt: one need only consider the history of the Jewish people or the content of some books of the Old Testament. For the ancient Hebrews salt became a symbol of the joy of joining around a table, so that eating together meant living in brotherly love.
In the New Testament salt found its place as well, present in a great number of metaphors or in parables as symbol of wisdom, incorruptibility, eternity and alliance between God and man. In Rome, on the eight day following his birth, a piece of salt was rubbed on the baby to keep away the demons and evil spirits. In the Gospel, Jesus recommends his disciples to be “the salt of the earth,” that is to be a force capable of keeping men from the corruption of sin.
The ancient Greeks and the Hebrews used salt during sacrifices, just as within the Roman temples the vestals prepared the sacrificial millstone by rubbing it with brine. If salt fell from the head of the sacrifice’s chosen victim, it was considered a sign of bad luck. This has led to the superstition that has come down to our present time and is so widely understood that in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, we recognize Judas—who shortly thereafter would betray Jesus—by the saltcellar he has carelessly dropped in front of him.
And, to conclude, salt can even be found in our bag of superstitions: many believe in its power to drive away and exorcise evil spirits by sprinkling it on spilled oil. On the other hand there are those who fear bad luck will befall them if they should chance to drop salt on the floor, while it brings bad luck to the others if it is thrown.
A popular custom still in use in a number of European countries requires that a handful of salt be thrown in the coffin of a dead person before the burial. The salt—as symbol of incorruptibility and immortality—would thus keep away the devil. For the same reason in ancient Scotland salt was added in the brewing of beer, which would otherwise have been ruined by witches and evil spirits. In point of fact, the added salt prevented excessive fermentation in the brew and therefore avoids its potential “corruption.”
In short, the white granular substance we know today as “salt” has been essential to all life, especially with respect to its long and varied history. 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, obtainable and the least expensive of our necessities.