It’s historically linked to industry, political power, and war. It’s been a source of great wealth and one of the most desired substances in human history. Yet today, it’s plentiful and dirt cheap. What is it? It is, of course, salt.
Early humans soon learned that their bodies needed salt to stay alive. Nobody knows if ancient hunters salted their mastodon meat since red meat already contains plenty of salt. But after the Ice Age, when people turned to agriculture, they ate less meat and more grains and had to supplement their diets with salt.
Salt also draws water out of bacteria, so they shrivel and die. Since bacteria causes food to spoil, killing bacteria helped to preserve food. Before refrigeration, salting, brining, or pickling was the only way to keep meat, fish, and vegetables edible for long periods.
Salt was also used for antibiotic and healing purposes. As civilization progressed, salt was used to make everything from glazed pottery to gunpowder. And in ancient Egypt, dead bodies were preserved with salt in the form of natron (baking soda) before being wrapped in strips of linen and sent along to the afterlife.
SALTING IT AWAY
How much was salt worth? Plenty! Ancient Greek traders battered their slaves for salt. A lazy or rebellious slave was deemed “not worth his salt”-—an insult still used today. Our word “salary” dates back to Roman times when soldiers were paid a dispensation, called a salarium argemum, so they could buy salt. In Mali, West Africa, salt was once worth its weight in gold. And some cultures dispensed with the middleman and just used salt itself as money.
WE BUILT THIS CITY ON ROCK SALT
Since salt was so valuable, cities and empires grew up around it. Jericho was founded 10,000 years ago as a salt-trading center. Salt profits built the Great Wall of China, and some historians believe that the expansion of the Roman Empire was, in part, a determination to control reliable sources of salt. Some cities, like the Austrian city of Salzburg (which means “city of salt”), still retain a grain of their salty history in their names.
Some places like Austria (which has many outcrops of salt-bearing rocks) were loaded with the stuff, while other areas had to pay a fortune for it. The idea of getting salt cheaply and selling it at a high price inspired trade routes across oceans and deserts.
Salt gave our ancestors freedom to travel—they could keep food fresh and carry it with them over long distances. Travel, in turn, made trade possible, and the need for salt fueled commerce.
Much of the exploration around the world has a salty ﬂavor.
Salted fish loomed large in the European diet, so scouting out new fishing beds led, in part, to the exploration of the New World. First the Vikings, then the British, French, and Portuguese ﬂeets fished in the North Atlantic and explored the Americas searching for salt to preserve their catches.
A SALT AND BATTERY
The history of war may seem unsavory, but it does have a salty side. Those devious Hapsburg dukes of the 14th century sold salt to the Swiss—then used the money to make war against them!
Salt, or the lack of it, was also a strategy in the war between Holland and Spain. When the Dutch revolted against Spanish rule in the 16th century, they successfully blockaded Spain’s Iberian saltworks—and that gave Spain a shove into bankruptcy, causing her to lose the war.
During the American Civil War, Union generals went after Confederate salt manufacturers, and they refused to allow any salt to make its way South. The lack of salt kept the Confederacy from curing pork for rations. The hunger that Southern troops and their families at home endured was an important factor in the South’s defeat.
DEATH, TAXES, AND SALT
Levied in 2200 B.C. by China’s emperor Hsia Yu, the world’s first tax was on (you guessed it) salt. Chandragupta, who ruled India in 324 B.C., came up with the same idea. The Roman emperors put a tax on salt, and some salt taxes exist in Italy even today.
One of the most hated salt taxes was the French tax called the gabelle. As the French kings and their courts sought more money, the gabelle became a notorious example of taxploitation—from 1630 to 1710 the tax increased ten times over. Eventually, every French citizen older than the age of eight was forced to purchase a weekly minimum amount of salt for a fixed price-—forcing some families into starvation since they couldn’t afford both salt and food. To nobody’s surprise, repeal of the salt tax became a cause célebre of the French Revolution.
SHAKING THINGS UP
Even in modern times, salt has had power—as Mahatma Gandhi understood. In 1930, the British had a monopoly on the manufacture of salt in colonial India. They taxed salt so highly that millions of Indians suffered. Gandhi won international sympathy when he led thousands of Indians in a “salt march” to Dandi beach, where they illegally gathered salt mud. Arrests followed, but the British were ultimately forced to negotiate. Gandhi’s nonviolent movement was launched, helping India eventually win its independence from Britain.
Salt, however, is still fighting to win its independence from pepper.
In The Last Supper, Da Vinci painted an overturned saltcellar in front of Judas Iscariot. This was intended to represent bad luck or looming evil.
There are 30 references to salt in the Bible. The word salvation has its origins with covenants, often sealed with salt, in both testaments of the Bible.
During World War II, the Nazis hid plundered artworks in salt mines.
The Hotel de Sal Playa in Bolivia, built in 1993, is made entirely of salt. It is located near the Uyuni mine, one of the world’s largest salt mines. Its walls, roof, tables, and bar consist of sodium chloride. According to a CNN article, during the rainy season, the hotel’s walls are reinforced with additional blocks of salt. Guests are urged not to lick the walls.