I don’t recall a time in my growing up years on the farm, or as an adult, whether eating out or at home, that I didn’t’ hear someone ask, “Pass the salt, please.” I always accepted this seasoning in our salt shaker, as part of a table setting. Yet, since ancient days, salt played a prominent role in many different cultures, in helping to bring it to our kitchen table.
The earliest known salt works comes from Lake Yuncheng, in China, around 6000 BC. Also from China is a documented history on salt, the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu, around 2700 BC, in a treatise on pharmacology, where more than 40 kinds of salt are discussed.
The Egyptians, as early as 2800 BC, practiced a 70-day mummification of the dead, using a salt called Natron, referred to as “divine salt.” Funeral offerings for the afterlife in the tombs, consisted of salted fish, birds, vegetables, and even jars of salt.
During ancient days, the currency was different in each country, but salt was used as a method of trade and currency. The Greek slave traders exchanged salt for slaves, giving rise to the expression, “Not worth his salt.” Hippocrates (460-370 BC), the Greek physician, encouraged other doctors to heal ailments by immersing their patients in salt water.
Roman soldiers were once paid a special allowance, along with their wages. This ration of “salt money” was called salarium argentum, from which the word salary was derived. Our word salad also comes from salt, when the Romans salted their leafy greens and vegetables.
Both the old and new testaments have more than 30 references to salt. Mosaic law called for salt to be added to all burnt animal offerings, “because salt represents the covenant between you and God.” Jesus told his disciples, “Ye are the salt of the earth.” This expression is used today to describe someone who is valuable.
The production and transport of salt gave rise to names of cities, the construction of roads, and even wars.
The earliest salt mines in Europe were found in Austria---Halstatt and Salzburg, both meaning “salt towns.” Salzburg’s 4 salt mines are a major tourist attraction. Several places in England, with the suffix wich and wych, (place of salt), are named Middlewich, Northwich, Leftwich, and Nantwich.
During the early years of the Roman Republic, roads were needed to transport salt. One such road was the Via Salaria (salt route) that led from Rome to the Adriatic Sea.
The United States, between 1790 and 1860, had salt producing states in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. Salt had a longer history in Syracuse, (called Salt City), New York, as early as 1654.. Records of Jesuit missionaries reported salty brine springs at the southern end of “Salt Lake” known today as Onondaga Lake. In those early days, salt was transported through rivers and lakes, which was slow and expensive, at least until the Erie Canal was completed in 1825. The canal became known as “the ditch that salt built,” because the salt revenue tax paid for half of the construction.
Due to the necessity for salt, governments monopolized and created heavy taxes on salt, even creating wars.
The first known tax on salt was by the Chinese Emperor Hsia Yu when salt contributed to building the Great Wall, from 214 BC.
In France, it was the unscrupulous gabelle salt tax, enacted in 1286 until 1790. This tax, among others, and the scarcity of salt contributed and ignited the French Revolution.
In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi protested the British rule of the high tax on salt in India. He led a 200 mile trek to collect untaxed salt from the ocean for the poor. For years, British monarchy was supported by high salt taxes, which led to the illicit trafficking of the salt.
The U.S. wasn’t exempt from salt wars either. During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the British intercepted salt shipments to the New World to prevent the ability to preserve foods. In 1777, British Commander Howe successfully captured Gen’l George Washington’s supply of salt.
During the War of 1812 with England, salt brine was used to pay our soldiers, because the government didn’t’ have the money to pay them.
Salt also played an important role in the Civil War (1861-1865). The production of salt in Syracuse, New York, freed the northern states of salt problems. Syracuse, since it was close to the Erie Canal, (completed in 1825), transported clothing, food, and arms to help the war effort, but salt was the most important. In 1862, Syracuse shipped 9 million bushels of salt through the Erie Canal to help troops, who needed salt in their diets and to preserve foods. The Union, in 1864, fought a 36 hour battle to capture, Saltville, Virginia, a salt producing plant, that was very much needed by the Confederate troops on the march, as salted foods last a long time.
Now you know about the history of salt, I’ll head back to Medieval Europe to finally get salt to the kitchen table.
Salt, as we know it, comes in a shaker, but for centuries in Europe, it was served in a bowl, because it absorbed moisture and stuck together.
These salt bowls, came in various sizes and shapes for holding and dispensing salt. According to custom, the bowls could be open, lidded, or covered with a cloth. They also came in an assortment of names, such as salt dip, master salt, salt dish, open salt, standing salt, saler (from salaries, meaning pertaining to salt) , and salt cellar. By the 17th century, small salt spoons appeared with the salt bowls.
Because of the scarcity of salt in Medieval England, salt was expensive and only affordable to the higher ranks of society. British nobility started the custom of seating arrangements for those of high rank at the high table; those less favored, the commoner
servants, sat at the lower table. In the center of the high table was the status symbol—an ornate salt cellar, of which only those of high rank had access. Thus, the phrases “below the salt” for those commoner servants who sat below the salt cellar, and “above the salt” for the distinguished guests.
Incidentally, one of the London Towers of the 21 tower complex, was known as the Salt Tower, where salt was stored for the nobility.
Originally, chunks of salt were chipped off a large piece of salt from the salt cellars. By the Victorian era, salt grinders or mills were used. Small chunks placed inside a mill, where a mechanism broke up the rock salt, by cranking it.
After this lengthy time in salt’s history, salt shakers became popular through the efforts of Morton Salt, an American company, and their free-flowing salt. Their motto, “When it rains it pours,” points to the fact that even during rainy weather, with the new absorbent agent, magnesium carbonite, added in 1911, it never sticks together.
Eventually, the salt shaker, with holes in the lid, was paired with the pepper shaker, and both have their proper place in the center of our kitchen table.
I hope I’ve provided you with a few topics, to spice up the conversation next time someone at your dinner table asks, “Pass the salt, please.”