Most people probably think of salt as simply that white granular food seasoning
found in a saltshaker 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 cartoonsand
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 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.