References on salt in history
The resources available on salt in history are seemingly unlimited. This is a selection of references that will be of greatest interest and utility.
- General overview
- Ancient history
- Salt production history
- Salt company histories
- Regulation and taxes
- Salt museums
In 1996, Science Tribune published a comprehensive review by Bernard Moinier, since-retired as staff executive of EuSalt and the Comite des Salines de France. There are other articles of interest in the same series .
The most popular history about salt is Mark Kurlansky’s best-seller, Salt, A World History . It contains fascinating anecdotes and reminds us of important lessons of history. The many book reviews (pdf 42.48 kB) tantalize with enticing previews of salt history and its cultural impacts. Other "classics," though the National Geographic article is out of print, include:
- Adshead, Samuel A.M. Salt and Civilization (1992)
- Multhauf, Robert P. Neptune's Gift (1978)
- Young, Gordon. "The Essence of Life: Salt." National Geographic, September 1977, pp. 380-401
For an extensive bibliography of articles on the history of salt, visit the Commission Internationale d’Histoire de Sel .
The vast resources of the MRBLOCH Salt Archive include many on the history of salt.
• The University of California-Davis recalls “The Importance of Salt ” for a Geology class.
• Another review article by “Lord Zaviar” features this quote: “In the fifth century Cassiodorus (a Goth administrator) stated "It may be that some seek not gold, but there lives not a man that does not need salt ." (Molm. 14-17).”
During the Paleozoic Era (200 million BC – 230 million BC) huge saline seas covered areas that are dry land today (e.g. Lake Bonneville in Utah and the Michigan Basin which underlies most of the lower peninsula of the state of Michigan today. Fossilized in the salt deposits are the bones of musk oxen and mastodons ; the mastodon is the state fossil in Michigan. The Pittsfield Township (MI) Historical Society tells this story.
Archeologists have found salt-mummified “salt men
”, some having lived as long ago as the 7th century B.C.: in the Chehr Abad salt mine in Zanjan province, Iran.
China’s huge new Three Gorges Dam flooded many historical sites. These were studied carefully before the dam was constructed and China.org offers some of their findings about salt production in ancient China and about Chengdu, “the salt capital of China .” Two other valuable, and much more extensive, discussions are The Salt Merchants of Tianjin by Kwan Man Bun and Salt Production Techniques in Ancient China by Yoshida Tora and Hans Ulrich Vogel. Professor Vogel organized an international workshop in 2006 which updated these findings. . Nomads carried both salt, and probably an understanding of how the Chinese made it, as their commercial interests spread westward.
Ancient saltmaking in the West is well-documented. Engineers constructing a gas pipeline in Poland in 1997, for example, made a spectacular discovery of Middle Paleolithic cultural remains including, on the same site, but obviously much later, a Roman industrial complex used to extract salt from underground saline springs in Przeworsk. The Romans, of course, were great agents of change, technological and cultural. The MRBLOCK Archive records how Rome itself became a viable military/political force based on its saltworks at Ostia . Saltmaking along the French Mediterranean has gone on for two millennia with shipments by coastal ships and a pair of major “salt roads.” In North America, the Hopi and Iroquois have well-known salt production; the Hopi used salt ceremonially .
Salt has been central not only to the historic life of cities and states, but to the culture in society. There are many famous quotes that illustrate how it imbues our culture. FoodReference.com has a good collection. http://www.foodreference.com/html/qsalt.html
• As in many areas, the Chinese record the oldest folk tale about the discovery of salt .
• D.L. Ashliman collected folktales about salt from around the world.
Encyclopedia.com has an article on "salt in phrase and fable ."
• In western civilization, Aesop’s Fables included “The Merchant, the Donkey and the Salt
• Separately, Barry McWilliams Web-published the Swedish folktale, “Salt on a Magpie’s Tail .”
• Others worth a read include the stories “ The Pearl Princess,” “The Salt Mountain,” “The Salt of the Earth,” and “The Legend of the Sea Salt” (or its variant “Why the Sea is Salt (pdf 80.17 kB) ”).
• Pablo Neruda offered a poetic Ode To Salt .”
• And in 2005, the first “Words of Salt” Literary Competition was conducted by The Salt Queen Foundation.
Salt is both an object and a medium for artists.
• Egyptian art from as long ago as 1450 B.C. records salt-making. Search the Smithsonian Institution
’s database for “salt” and find three dozen images while the British Library
’s ImagesOnline database identifies a couple dozen and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum
has a score in their web exhibition.
• Today, artists like NYC-based Bettina Werner, the “Salt Queen” render their creativity in salt.
• German photographer Fred Lange has a website with 50 large format photos related to salt .
• Based in Seattle, sculptor Pam Gazale
carves salt from pressed salt blocks and crystallizes salt as in her Halite II which narrates the history of salt in an iconic manner.
• In Europe, Jörg Lenzlinger of Zurich, Switzerland, creates elaborate crystal formations from table salt. His “Salt Piece ” is reviewed online.
• Australian painter Angela Rossen has chosen to paint salt facility landscapes.
• Salt-generated art includes “Salt Patterns ”
• Free registration is required to see more recent examples are drawings of a a 16th century Persian picture of a Kurdish salt merchant .
• It’s worth the time to do the free registration required on the British Library’s ImagesOnline to see more recent examples are drawings of a 15th century French salt evaporation plant .
• A 17th century Italian print offering instructions in distilling salt.
• The Studio Potter produced a nice discussion of castable refactories and the salt kiln in making pottery .
• Google “salt glazing” and you come up with about 326,000 Web pages. All you could ever need to know is in Phil Rogers’ book Salt Glazing (excerpts online ) and Victor Epand has an Ezine article on the “Origins of Salt Glaze Pottery ” that explore its history. Or enjoy the Lion Salt Works Trust demo on salt glazing on YouTube .com.
Salt has played a vital part in religious ritual in many cultures, symbolizing immutable, incorruptible purity.
• Salt has earned a reference in the Catholic Encyclopedia ,
• Salt Institute member company Salins has additional thoughts.
Salt has been produced since the dawn of mankind. These references deal with the technology and organizations which produced salt and brought it to market. It’s organized on a country basis.
- Austria. Salt Institute member company Salinen Austria has a comprehensive summary of the history of salt, particularly in Austria .
- Canada. There’s not much, but a short summary was Web-published by Salt Institute member Sifto Salt .
- China. Of interest given recent political-economic development in China is a report on Early Salt Production along the Yangzi River in Comparative Perspective: An International Symposium held at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2002.
- Europe. The ALAS Project is a collaboration of four European sites dedicated to preserving traditionally run solar saltworks with both their natural and cultural heritage. The partners include the Department of Geography at the University of the Aegean on Lesbos, Greece; the Municipality of Figueira da Fox in Portugal; the Commune of Piran, Slovenia; and the Municipality of Pomorie, Bulgaria.
- France. Probably the oldest French saltworks, Salin de Giraud, France , founded in 1856 has a website that offers a glimpse into its rich history. In the flowering of French neo-classicism in the 18th century, "The Ideal City of Chaux " was planned, centered on the royal saltworks. Though never completed, the project is a UNESCO World Heritage Site .
- Germany. Science Tribune has a good piece on saltmaking in Bavaria in the 19th and 20th centuries .
- Mali. The great trading empire of Mali in West Africa from the 13th through 16th centuries was based on both rock salt and solar salt. The legendary city of Timbuktu actually existed at the center of the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire . The solar “saltworks” is the same today as it was 500 years ago (photos online, scroll down to see them) Antibiotics in Action’s feature “Salt: the first antibiotic ” also has a illuminating photo and some interesting information. Another readable summary, “The Art of Ancient Mali ” was produced by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.There is also a long "salt" history in Africa. ThinkQuest.org has some illustrative maps . the Montgomery County, MD schools have produced a helpful bibliography for further study.
- Netherlands Antilles. Bonaire has a modern solar saltworks operated by Cargill Salt – and a rich history of saltmaking. The beauty of its flamingoes today belies a heritage of its colonial past .
- Poland. The Wieliczka salt mine at Cracow, a UNESCO World Heritage Site , has a great number of websites extolling its long history. Best among them are those by the owner and the Modern History Sourcebook .
- Russia. Science Tribune has a good piece on saltmaking in Russia. In 17th century Russia, when Czar Alexis I’s brother-in-law Boris Morozov ran the government, he instituted state monopolies on tobacco and salt and a high tax on salt. The salt tax quadrupled the government’s revenues, but proved so unpopular it was repealed in 1647 – but the attempt to collect back taxes prompted the Salt Riot of 1648. Wikipedia is a good source.
- Sudan. The best source is Paul E. Lovejoy’s Salt of the Desert Sun . Nearby salt is produced at Lake Assai .
- United Kingdom. The Salt Association (UK) has a nice discussion about salt in history, particularly the rich history of salt production in the British Isles. The early development of modern salt mining in the UK is traced in a history course at the University of Rochester (NY) and the Cheshire (UK) Local History Association . Encyclopedia.com discusses salt in both Northern Ireland and Ireland .
- United States. While production processes were protected intellectual property, Americans rejected the idea of monopolies. 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. During the Revolutionary War, a 1778, a treaty between the Iroquois' Onondaga tribe and the state of New York specifically rejected a salt monopoly and in the new United States, the Land Act of 1795 included a provision for salt reservations to prevent monopolies. http://www.saltinstitute.org/nyhist.html 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. OurHeritage.net has a painting and a photo of a reconstruction of the salt boiling operation. 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 nickname: "Salt City." http://www.saltinstitute.org/syracuse.html Competing with upstate New York for salt production prominence was the Kanawha valley of West Virginia where production began shortly after the Revolutionary War. This story was recorded in the 2004 video "Red Salt and Reynolds" (x-ms-wmv 1.31 MB) (excerpt courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ). Later, during the U.S. Civil War, the capture by Union armies of the Confederacy’s saltworks in Florida , Louisiana, Texas and Virginia proved of crucial importance. The 36-hour battle in December 1864 at Saltville, VA where the last remaining Confederate saltworks was destroyed, sealed the Confederacy’s fate and four months later led to its surrender. The National Park Service has a summary and David Brown has published a useful summary of the two Saltville campaigns . An annual Civil War reenactment of the battles is held each August. . After the war, saltmaking became important in Kansas where its meat-preserving properties well served livestock producers. Saltmaking was also important in the early history of California and Utah – as well as it remains today. In fact, saltmaking began in San Francisco Bay in 1770 and in the Great Salt Lake in 1847, shortly after the Mormon pioneers arrived. Drillers found a rock salt deposit at St. Clair, Michigan in 1882, and Michigan was the leading state in U.S. salt production in the early 20th century. Salt Institute member Detroit Salt Company has some interesting information about the mine they opened in 1895.
The following Salt Institute member companies have online histories of their operations:
• British Salt (UK)
• The Canadian Salt Company (Canada)
• Cheetham Salt (Australia
• Dampier Salt (Australia)
• Detroit Salt Company (US)
• Exportadora de Sal (Mexico) (website in Spanish)
• Industria Salinera de Yucatan (Mexico)
• Italkali (Italy)
• Morton Salt (US)
• Quimpac (Peru)
• Refinaria Nacional de Sal (Brazil) (website in Portuguese)
• United Salt (US)
Government regulations and taxes arose nearly as early as governments themselves because salt was so universally used, indeed required. Often monopolies were created by governments. In fact, the Linux Information Project uses salt as one of two case studies in its discussion of “monopoly .” The history of regulations is usually considered in country analyses such as the following:
• Austria . A bit of history including mention of the historic salt monopoly, discontinued when Austria joined the EU, is found in the “Salz” entry in AEIOU Encyclopedia.
• Bulgaria . Beyond the link to the salt museum, above, the Czech journal Archiv orientální had an article in 2001 on salt production during the Ottoman empire.
• China. The Chinese are the first known to exact taxes on salt. The earliest written text on Chinese salt administration, Guanzi, ~300 B.C., discussed how to fix the price of salt above the market price both to generate state revenues and create a market for imports controlled by the emperor. MRBLOCH has a rich discussion. Ulrich Theobald has more on the Guanzi as does R. Eno at the University of Indiana in a discussion of the philosophy of the document . Every emperor since that time employed a salt tax. Following a property tax revolt, Tang Dynasty China created a Salt Commission in 758 AD in order to replace the lost tax revenues (and, they added, ensure the population adequate nutrition). Wikipedia is the best source. Salt-making in Sichuan province was the subject of a 2006 German university workshop.
• France. The infamous gabelle was instituted in 1286 and not repealed until the French Revolution. It’s high rates were a precipitating cause of the Revolution, although there were other efforts to resist paying the tax as in the red bonnet peasant revolt in Brittany in 1675. MRBLOCH has the best discussion. Wikipedia has tax rates in its entry. Or see the English translation of a contemporaneous condemnation of the tax posted by the history department of Indiana’s Hanover College.
• India. The British East India Company had created a salt monopoly in Bengal
by 1788; it lasted until 1836. MRBLOCH has a good collection of materials. And this is discussed in a Japanese-language article
. The British instituted a salt monopoly in November 1804 when it monopolized Orissa salt
, set salt prices and prohibited the private sale of salt. A decade later, the government asserted it would be the sole salt producer. By the 1840s, the British had erected a supposedly impenetrable “Salt Hedge
” to prevent smuggling and to enforce its “salt starvation” policy
about which Roy Moxham has written cogently. Always an unpopular tax, the first recorded public protest against the salt tax was conducted in 1888. But it wasn’t until four decades later when Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi argued that salt was broadly-understood example of British misrule. In March 1930, Gandhi and 78 selected followers began a 240-mile walk to the sea at Dandi
, where they would defy the law by scraping up salt and touch off the process that earned India its independence from Great Britain. Mohinder Singh has more.
• Italy. Renaissance Venice used a salt monopoly as a cornerstone of its rise to commercial preeminence. The Papal States and Naples also had salt monopolies during this period. Discussed in the paper “Importance of Salt” posted by the geology department of the University of California-Davis.
• Japan. Dismembering any salt monopoly has been difficult, but the difficulties often unrecorded, making an analysis of the process in Japan by The Heritage Foundation worth a look.
• Taiwan. The tourist site Salt Mountain in Cigu reviews the history of salt-making and –marketing in Taiwan including discussion of how the Chinese monopoly (1726-1895) was disbanded when Japan took over the island, but how the Japanese re-created a monopoly in 1899 when private production efforts lagged; this monopoly lasted a century.
Salt museums recall the historic contributions of the salt industry in communities around the world. Here are some of the leading salt museums:
• Austria. Bergbaumuseum (Salt Museum) in Hall, Austria . The museum features a “reconstructed” salt mine, complete with pits, shafts, drills, tools. At the conclusion of the tour, visitors slide down a slippery wooden slide.
• Austria. Kelten Museum in Dürrnberg, Austria (website in German). Learn about saltmaking and Celtic life.
• Austria. Salzwelten (museum/tourist attraction), Salzburg, Austria . Kick up your heels and learn about salt at the same time. Operated by Salt Institute member, Salinen Austria.
• Bolivia. Salt Museum, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia . The country with South America’s highest average elevation, Bolivia, is the site of the world’s largest salt flats/desert…and a salt museum. This travel blog has photos of the area and the museum. If you visit in person, you can stay in a 15-bedroom, all-salt hotel . As CNN.com quips, “the salt is always on the table. In fact…, the salt is the table. And, naturally, NationalGeographic.com has a photo .
• Columbia. Hollowed out of a “salt mountain” in Zipaquira, Columbia , is a massive cathedral carved out of salt. It attracts 200,000 visitors a year.
• Bulgaria. Salt Museum, Pomorie, Bulgaria
. The site has been used as a solar saltworks since the fifth century B.C.
• China. Zigong Salt Museum, Zigong, Sichuan, China . The architecture of the museum itself is the big attraction. It took 16 years to build and was completed in 1752. It was used as the guild hall for salt merchants who enjoyed great wealth.
• Germany. Berchtesgaden mine, Berchtesgaden, Germany
. Yes, Hitler’s Eagles Nest retreat has a salt mine and a lot of history.
• Germany. Deutsches Salzmuseum (German Salt Museum), Lüneburg, Germany . Until salt production in the city was discontinued in 1980, it boasted more than a millennium of salt production as one of Europe’s largest salt mines. The museum is located at the site of the old production plant.
• Japan. Tobacco and Salt Museum, Tokyo, Japan . Both tobacco and salt were government monopolies in Japan until recently. The site offers a contrast in the culture and technology of salt production from that in North America and Europe.
• Mexico. Museo de la Sal, Cuyutlan, Colima, Mexico . A visual introduction to low-tech salt production on Mexico’s Pacific coast. During the Spanish colonization of Mexico, Cuyutlan was one of the the major salt suppliers for the silver mines of Guanajuato.
• Pakistan. Khwera Salt Mines
, first developed in 1872 now is a tourist attraction as explained in this five-minute video tour.
• Poland. Muzeum Żup Krakowskich Wieliczka (Cracow Salt Works Museum), Cracow, Poland . (Website in Polish). This is probably the world’s most famous salt mine. It is 700 years old contains an underground chapel carved over many centuries by faithful Catholic salt miners. This mine is so famous Poland has issued postage stamps with its images. http://www.saltinstitute.org/images/wieliczka_stamps.jpg
• Slovenia. The Museum of Salt Making, Piran, Slovenia . The museum features salt pans used to harvest salt from the Adriatic Sea and exhibits about the lifestyle of salt makers.
• Spain. Las Salinas Salt Museum, Las Salina, Caleta de Fuset, Fuerteventura Island, Spain . Well, it says Spain, but the island is in the Atlantic, off of coast of Morocco, almost as far south as Western Sahara. The museum overlooks the island’s last salt pan and exhibits explain the history, extraction and uses of salt.
• Spain. Torrevieja Sea And Salt Museum, Torrevieja, Spain
. This link gives a virtual tour of the museum with the salt production buildings and ship models for this salt city on Spain’s Mediterranean coast .
• United Kingdom. Lion Saltworks Trust, Northwich, Cheshire, UK . The museum is a restoration of the original saltworks. The website also gives an explanation of open pan salt evaporation as used in the 17th through 19th centuries in Northwich. Project Director Andrew P. Fielding wrote an illuminating piece on the Lion Salt Works published by Science Tribune.
• United Kingdom. The Salt Museum, Northwich, Cheshire, UK . Northwich has had a salt museum since 1909. The area has produced salt for two millennia.
• United States. Kansas Underground Salt Museum, Hutchinson, KS
. America’s only museum in a salt mine and the newest major tourist attraction in Kansas; it opened in 2008. You’ll never forget how dark it is in a salt mine 650 feet from the surface when all the lights go out! Here’s a video promotion.
• United States. The Salt Museum at Onondaga Lake Park, Liverpool, NY . Learn more about the industry that created the City of Syracuse and supplied the entire U.S. with salt! The museum contains an original boiling block where salt brine was turned into what was then considered one of the country's most precious commodities. See the actual kettles, wooden barrels and other equipment that were used until the 1920's. The curator, Valerie Jackson Bell wrote an interesting article in Science Tribune.
• United States. The Salt Palace, Grand Saline, TX . The city has hosted a rock salt mine since 1845 and is, today, the site of a large Morton Salt mine. The original Salt Palace, built entirely of salt and patterned after the Alamo, was constructed in 1936 for Texas’ centennial celebration. It was relocated and rebuilt, still entirely of salt, in 1975 and is the centerpiece of the city’s annual Salt Festival the second weekend in June.