Salt is an essential ingredient in the diet of humans, animals and even many plants, according to saltworks.us. This effective, widely used food preservative even was used to preserve mummies in Egypt. Beyond its almost-innumerable industrial uses, salt also has great current and historical interest.
Again according to saltworks.us, salt served as money at various times and places and has been the cause of bitter warfare. Egyptians record salt-making as long ago as 1450 B.C. Salt economic importance led to many phrases still in use today. For example, trades in ancient Greece of salt for slaves led to the expression, “Not worth his salt.” Also, early Roman soldiers received special salt rations known as “salarium argentum,” a phrase that was the forerunner of “salary.”
Religious connections to salt abound as well, as the Bible has more than 30 references to salt, like “salt of the earth.”
The Chinese realized everyone had to have salt and thus created a salt tax, which produced major revenue.
World War II historians have recorded how the Nazis plundered European artworks and hid them inside salt mines. The South American country Bolivia has a salt-producing region that actually is a tourist attraction — one of its hotels is constructed entirely of salt and a salt-bearing caravan of llamas, according to saltworks.us.
The United States also developed a taste for salt. Saltworks.us says the British crown issued its first patent to an American settler, Samuel Winslow of Massachusetts, for the exclusive right to make salt by his particular method for a decade. And the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, was known as “The ditch that salt built” because the mineral was its major cargo.
The Onondaga Indians boiled brine from salt springs in New York in 1654, according to reports from the time. Colonial Americans boiled brine in iron kettles. The Kanawha Valley in West Virginia produced most of the salt used by the Confederacy during the Civil War. If the South had been able to protect its salt factories there and along the coast, the war might have ended differently.
“During the Civil War period salt was an extremely important commodity. Since there was no refrigeration, salt was used to cure meat, to tan the leather used to make shoes and other leather goods for the soldiers, to set dye in cloth used to make uniforms and for the many horses and mules that accompanied the troops. Farmers needed large amounts of salt in butchering farm animals for market. With no salt to preserve meat, there was no product to sell. And with no products to sell, there was no money with which to buy necessities. People would be destitute” (Georgia Civil War Salt Rolls 1862-1864 by E. N. Hicks).
Julia King wrote that her father, James Audley Maxwell King, of Liberty County, established a salt works on the south end of Colonels Island. Traces of the old salt mines still could be seen in 1925. During the Civil War, salt was so scarce that it cost $40 a bushel and could not be bought even at that price. People became sick because of a lack of salt. The salt works flourished, and Julia’s father made a great deal of money from the operation. Friends advised him to buy gold with his profits and bury it. But he bought Confederate bonds instead. He sent out word that he would give salt free to the families of any Confederate soldiers. Soon, long lines of wagons came and went day and night across the causeway to Colonels Island.
Some families got dirt from the smokehouse floor and boiled it for the salt that had dripped from curing meat over the years. They shared it with others that were not so fortunate. When they did get a little salt, they made sure they kept it hidden, even if it had to be buried in a jar in the yard under a flower bush. I remember our old smokehouse and the meat hanging in it being smoked. I cannot imagine having to obtain salt from the black, salty dirt in order to have some to seasoned food.
“The blockade of the coastal waters of the Confederacy made the importance and value of salt abundantly apparent. Prices soared and there was hoarding by profiteers. Georgia passed laws allowing the governor to seize salt held for exorbitant prices. This salt was distributed by the county commissioners’ court in each county.
People were put on a Georgia Civil War salt roll. They included widows of deceased soldiers discharged from the service, families dependent on a soldier and widows having a son or sons currently in service.” (Georgia Civil War Salt Rolls)
The next time you reach for the round, blue box with the little girl holding the umbrella, think about the precious item and how fortunate we are today to have this available to us and at a cheap price.