Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/July 1904/Salt


By Professor CHARLES W. SUPER,


EVERYBODY knows the lines in Lucile in which the author declares that 'civilized man can not live without cooks.' He also proposes the query whether there is any man in the world who can live without dining. The assertion is true only with important restrictions; for it will not be contended by anybody that every person who cooks is a cook, any more than it would be affirmed that every one who paints is a painter. The interrogatory may be frankly answered in the negative, since the great majority of mankind does not now dine and never has dined. They eat when they have food, and when they have none they do without. If we call this spasmodic way of supplying the interior department with materials for slow combustion, quaddrupeds may be said to dine with as much propriety as homo erectus. If our poet had asked the question, Where is the man, civilized or uncivilized, who can live without salt? every one of his readers would probably have replied unhesitatingly, 'He does not exist.' It is doubtful too whether he ever existed. It is asserted by competent authorities that terrestrial as well as marine life is conditioned upon the consumption of salt. The position is hard to prove or disprove, as experiments that would give trustworthy results are almost impossible. It seems, however, fairly well established that man at the present day, no matter what his rank on the staircase of social progress, can not or, at least, does not, live without this substance. What history has to say will be given below. That a historical record and an established fact are not interchangeable terms is, however, to be premised. Not only has this mineral been found in close proximity to almost every locality inhabited by man or at least within his reach; it is sought with almost equal avidity by brutes. Most domestic animals are particularly fond of it. It is said to be fatal to some kinds of birds, though barn-yard fowls consume it without injury. The herbivora have an especial liking for it, whether in their wild state or domesticated. It is well known that the various salt licks in the United States were favorite places for ambuscades, and that both Indians and whites used them for the purpose of destroying the deer, buffalo and other animals that habitually resorted to them. Probably the most famous of these salt springs, or licks, as they are generally designated, is the Big Bone Lick in Boone County, Kentucky. Professor Shaler in his history of the state says:

Not only do we find the bones of animals which occupied the country when the whites first came to it—the buffalo, the elk, the deer, etc.—but also deeper in the mire, or in portions that indicate a greater antiquity, great quantities of the bones of the fossil elephant, his lesser kinsman the mastodon, the musk-ox, an extinct long-legged buffalo, the caribou or American reindeer, and various other creatures which dwelt here in the time when the last glacial period covered the more northern regions with a mantle of ice.

The number of animals buried in the swampy soil about this lick is enormous. Many of them, in their eagerness to get at the brine, rushed beyond their depth, and before they were aware of it were borne down by their own weight until they were unable to extricate themselves, and so died of starvation. Others were probably pushed forward by those that crowded on from behind and trodden into the soft earth, where they died of suffocation. The locality was equally fatal to small and to large animals. How many years or cycles ago this destruction began we have no means of knowing, but that it continued to comparatively recent times is extremely probable.

Let us now examine some evidence which goes to show that man has lived without salt. Sallust in his 'History of the Jugurthine War' says the Numidians live chiefly on milk and the flesh of wild animals, and that they use no salt or other relishes. Not only is the time to which the historian refers comparatively recent, but he has the reputation of carefully verifying his facts. His statements, therefore, carry great weight. It is held, moreover, that the Finnish name for salt is derived from an Indo-European root. If this view is correct the inference is natural and legitimate that the Finns did not know this commodity until they came in contact with Aryans, probably Slavs, from whom they got both the name and the thing, or rather the thing and the name by which they heard it called. In the Odyssey the renowned seer, Teiresias, directs Ulysses to travel until he comes to 'men who know not the sea neither eat meat flavored with salt.' Pliny supposes the Epirotes to be meant by this passage. But the point of chief interest is that to the Homeric Greeks a saltless people were supposed to live somewhere in the interior and in the most primitive condition. The poet, instead of naming a dozen points of difference, with epic prolixity, in life and usage between his own nation and this far-off tribe, has selected a single characteristic as sufficiently explicit for his purpose. Tacitus relates that toward the close of the first christian century a great battle was fought between the Hermanduri and the Chatti for the possession of a river boundary, a salt-producing stream, because both parties believed that at this place heaven was especially near and that nowhere else could they address their prayers to the gods in such close proximity. There is reason to believe that this river was the Werra. On its banks, near the town of Salzungen, saline springs have been known from time immemorial and are still in use. The historian further relates that salt was produced near the river and in the contiguous forest, not, as elsewhere, by the evaporation of seawater, but by pouring brine over a pile of burning wood, with the result that the salt was precipitated as a consequence of the struggle between the two elements, fire and water. Evidently the sacred character that was supposed to attach to this saline substance was due to the belief held by the natives that salt was always a product of the sea, except by the special interposition of the gods, as in this case. That they had contracted a liking for salt elsewhere in their wanderings may be taken for granted.

Salt is now produced in many parts of Germany, but its existence in any form was not known at this remote period. The article produced in such a singular manner must have been very impure; but the palates of the primitive Germans were much less sensitive than those of their modern successors. At a later period the Alemani and the Burgundians are said to have frequently striven in battle for salt pits or saline springs claimed by both; but the region can not be definitely located. The record is chiefly interesting when taken in connection with the preceding and others of a similar character as showing the high value placed upon this substance by peoples that had hardly made a start along the highway of civilization. With respect to the abovementioned method of making an impure grade of salt, it is worth noting that it is also spoken of as employed elsewhere. Varro had heard of a region where the inhabitants knew no salt, but used instead as seasoning a kind of salt coals which they obtained from burning wood. The same method and the same substitute for real salt are also reported as employed by some of the natives of Spain. Pliny devotes a good deal of space in his 'Natural History,' that storehouse of information and imagination, to the consideration of salt. He enumerates somewhat in detail the different places in almost the entire known world where it is found, describes the various methods of its production, notes the fondness of cattle for it, and adds that when mixed with their food it increases the quantity and improves the quality of the cheese. According to him Ancus Martius, the fourth king of Rome, established the first salt works, and the Romans perform no sacred rites without mola salsa. By the Romans salt was regarded as almost the staff of life, and the salt-cellar was preserved in families because it was supposed to have a quasi-sacred character. In one of his Odes, Horace tells his friend, Grosphus, that the man who enjoys life is he whose father's salt-cellar gleams on his table. In a satire by the same poet, the rustic sage informs the epicure that bread with salt will appease his growling stomach, and advises him to spurn dainty viands. The cognomen Salinator, borne by a member of the Livian gens, came into prominence for two reasons. The first who received the appellation is said to have imposed a new impost on salt. He is further distinguished for the magnanimity he displayed in laying aside his private grudge against the other consul, Claudius Nero, for the good of the commonwealth. The hearty cooperation of the two commanders-in-chief and their armies led to the death of Hasdrubal and the complete destruction of his army. Wherever a system of taxation is framed with a view to raising the largest possible revenue, the heaviest burden falls on the necessaries of life. From almost time immemorial salt has had to bear a disproportionate share of this load. It is probable that in ancient times all regularly organized governments derived some revenue from this commodity. In Italy, as we have seen, the beginning was made long ago, though the details are lacking. In that country it is still a government monopoly. The profits realized are about thirteen hundred per cent., and its cost is almost prohibitive to the very poor. Such a delicacy do their children consider it that if they are allowed to choose between sweetmeats and salt they take the latter in preference. That a more liberal use of salt would improve the health and sanitary condition of this class hardly admits of a doubt. It is safe to say that no article of consumption has been so ruthlessly exploited by governments to the detriment of their subjects as this one. Taking advantage of the fact that it is a necessary concomitant of the food of man and beast, they have made it an important source of revenue because its payment could not be evaded. In France under the ancient régime the tax on this article differed a good deal in the different provinces, but its transportation from one into another was prohibited. Its manufacture was also limited, and that which was produced by natural evaporation on the coasts was thrown back into the sea by the fiscal agents. While the price was enormous, the great majority of the citizens were not allowed to buy as small a quantity as they chose; they were compelled to pay for a certain amount conditioned upon the size of the family. On the other hand, certain privileged persons received all the salt they wanted gratis; or, if they preferred, they had the prerogative of receiving money in lieu thereof. The king did not directly control the salt monopoly. He acted through an association of revenue farmers who paid into the fisc a fixed sum, after which they had the legal right to exploit their helpless victims to the utmost. They possessed police powers and used them unmercifully. Evasions of the salt laws were rigorously punished by the judges, who were almost always hand in glove with the salt-farmers. Every year for nearly two centuries there were from two to three thousand arrests. Those who were found guilty were subjected to fines, to the lash and to the galleys. In case of a second conviction they were sometimes hanged. The peasant was prohibited from using salt a second time. The brine from meat or fish had to be thrown away; it could not be used in the kitchen or taken to the stables for the cattle. It was illegal for any one to make salt from sea-water even for his own use, and equally illegal to water animals with natural brine. To prevent tanners and leather-dressers, who employed salt in their industries, from putting it to any other use the salt farmers often poisoned it. Owing to the large number of different governments in Germany and owing to some divergencies in matters of internal administration, one can not make a statement on this point that is applicable to the entire country. But in view of the strong inclination of many of the German monarchs to ape French customs, especially the bad ones, it is safe to say that the salt monopoly in the empire was quite as oppressive as in France. It may be added that on the whole the French peasant was not as badly treated as his German brother; the former first shook off much of the burden by drastic means from causes that need not be considered here. So late as 1840 a sort of salt conscription was enforced in Saxony which required each family to buy a certain quantity of it and prohibited its sale to a second party. In Prussia a similar regulation was abolished in 1816. Salt was a government monopoly in the greater part of Germany until 1867, as it still is in Austria, Italy and some other countries. In Austria all salt works belong to the government; such was also the case in some other south German states until recently. It likewise owns all salt-yielding territory. At present there is a general revenue law for the empire and a duty on the foreign product. It is therefore a good deal cheaper in the German than in the Austrian empire. While it is doubtful whether any article of consumption has so long afforded governments a means of oppressing their subjects as salt, and while its history makes an interesting though rather gruesome chapter in political economy, it is, nevertheless, unfair to judge the ruling powers of the past by contemporary standards. Until comparatively recent times economic laws were so little understood and rulers were always so hard pressed for money that they were constrained to resort to such measures for raising revenue as promised the largest and most certain returns. In the nature of the case a commodity in such demand as salt had to bear a disproportionate share of the public burdens. Cruel and inhuman methods of legal procedure were the order of the day, and those who suffered from it did not themselves know any better way of attaining the ends in view. It is greatly to the credit of the English people that their jury system did much to mitigate the penalties to which many a transgressor against the revenue laws as against other laws made himself liable. Though juries could not change the statutes, they refused to convict when the penalty seemed too great for the offense. The United States has never collected revenue from salt, but when provision was made by congress for the government of the Northwest Territory and for the sale of lands therein, it took care to reserve the salt licks, apparently fearing that they might be made a means of extortion to the consumers of this indispensable article of diet. One section of the act of congress reads:

That a salt spring lying upon a creek which empties into the Scioto River, on the east side, together with as many contiguous sections as shall be equal to one township, and every other salt spring which may be discovered, together with the section of one mile square, which includes it, also four sections at the center of every township, containing each one mile square, that shall be reserved for the future disposal of the United States; but there shall be no reservation except for salt springs, in fractional townships, where the fraction is less than three fourths of a township.

We read of bloody battles between Germanic tribes for the possession of salt springs, and the inference is perfectly fair that the rumor of very few has come down to us by means of the written and the printed page. In the new world rival Indian tribes in like manner often contended fiercely for the same flowing treasure. Here too we find a repetition of the nomenclature of primitive Europe. There are several salt rivers in the states formed out of the Northwest Territory besides salt creeks, salt licks and other names, due to the presence of natural salt. The number is doubtless very much larger than the list given in the ordinary gazetteers, as the insignificant ones are not mentioned.

Although there are few regions in any part of the world in which there are neither saline springs nor deposits of rock-salt, it is probable that the Aryan name was derived from the sea and that the first salt was obtained from it by natural evaporation. In Homer άls means both salt and the sea; or perhaps it would be better to say that salt is named from the sea because the saline property of sea-water is its most salient characteristic. The designation άls is more particularly applied to that part of the sea which is near the land, as also to its bays and inlets, those parts with which man in the nature of the case was most familiar. In the Roman territory there existed in ancient times a Via Salaria, or Salt Road, which extended from the territory of the Sabines to the mouth of the Tiber, along which these people were permitted to transport salt for domestic use from the Mediterranean through the Roman country. The early Italians were, therefore, also dependent on the sea for their salt. It is noteworthy that Homer does not mention salt as employed in connection with sacrificial ceremonies. On the other hand, Virgil speaks of it as in regular use among the Romans, as do also other writers. While it is always unsafe to base conclusions on the evidence of silence, another ancient author quoted by Athenaeus says that in former times the Greeks burned the sacrificial parts of animals without salt, and that the custom continued into later times in conformity with the ancient practise. Here then we have Homer 's silence supplemented by positive testimony. It is well known, moreover, that all peoples are more conservative in religious usages than in any other. The adhibition of salt, the mola salsa of the Romans, seems not to have been borrowed from the Greeks, as were so many of their religious ceremonies. Like the Romans with their salted meal, the Hebrews were careful not to omit salt from their sacrifices, though the former may not regularly have put it on the flesh of the slain victims. In Leviticus we read: "And every oblation of thy meal offering thou shalt season with salt, neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meal offering: with all thine oblations thou shalt offer salt." From this command it may be inferred that salt was a part of bloody sacrifices as well as of those of the fruits of the earth.

In Germany there are many place-names that contain the Keltic root hal which seem in some way to be connected with sodium chloride. The best known of these is the city of Halle on the river bearing the Teutonic appellation, Saale. It is not easy to see how this double designation originated and conjectures are feeble arguments. There is no doubt, however, that Halle got its name from the salt springs near it. In the same country there were anciently several rivers called Sala on the banks of which salt works bearing the name Hall were planted. Besides the Halle already mentioned there is Eeichenhall in Bavaria, Hallein in Salzburg, Hall in Tyrol and in Swabia, as also Halen in Brabant, and others. In Czech there are likewise a number of words containing the radical hal that have some connection with salt. This root is still distinctly preserved in the Welsh 'halen' salt. In some of the Keltic-dialects, however, the initial h is represented by s.

In England there are a number of inland towns to the names of which the suffix wich, from the Norse wic, a bay, is appended. This seeming absurdity is easily understood when we remember that a wychhouse or wickhouse and a bayhouse came to be regarded as synonymous terms, and that wychhouses were erected where salt was prepared from brine, though they might be far from a bay. In the same way a coarse kind of salt came to be called baysalt from its similarity to the crude article of primitive manufacture. The wics in Essex were probably the first localities where salt works of the rude original type were erected. According to Isaac Taylor, the Domesday Book gives the names of three hundred and eighty-five places in Sussex alone where salt was made. The number seems incredible and may be a misprint; but the general fact is well established.

In Great Britain, as on the Continent, salt was obtained before the advent of the Teutons or the Romans. Here, too, we find our guide in the syllable 'hal,' which occurs in place-names in Carnarvon, in Hampshire, in Lancaster and elsewhere. Plutarch has left upon record some evidence that points to a period when salt was practically unknown in Egypt. He says the priests will permit no salt upon their tables, will not address a pilot because of his occupation at sea, and that they also eschew fish for the same reason. Another passage seems to modify this strong statement to this extent that there are certain limes when the priests do not partake of salt for the reason that it increases the desire for food and drink. All Greek evidence on such points is, however, of small value, since to the Greeks Egypt was at all times a wonderland where the most singular and unique customs prevailed. Long before Plutarch's time Herodotus reported to his countrymen that the people of the Nile valley did everything different from his own countrymen. A special ceremony or a custom observed only on particular occasions was easily perverted to a general usage by persons who had merely a superficial knowledge of the conditions.

Northern Africa has from time immemorial been a great storehouse of salt. Thebes in Egypt was the starting point for caravans that moved across it towards the west, perhaps as far as the Niger. Herodotus relates that a ten-day journey from the city heaps of the mineral lie in large lumps upon the hills and that from the tops of these hills salt water gushes forth. It is in this region that the Ammonians dwell, in whose district is the celebrated temple of Jupiter Ammon. The oasis is the bottom of what was once a salt lake or part of the sea and still has many salt springs in it. The soil is also impregnated with salt, although there is no scarcity of fresh water. It is probable that the chemical compound known as sal ammoniac gets its name from this region, either because it was first manufactured here or because it was found here in its natural state.

In many parts of northern Africa, often at long distances from the coast, salt occurs in great abundance. Though there is generally stone in plenty, the inhabitants in some places use blocks of salt for constructing dwellings, since it is easier handled and there is no danger to be apprehended from rain, which rarely falls in this part of the world. The salt blocks employed for this purpose are, however, not pure. They are cemented with mud, probably owing to a scarcity of lime. Some portions of the Sahara are covered with a crust of salt to such an extent as to give long reaches the appearance of being covered with a recent fall of snow. Some of the statements of Herodotus and other ancient writers are perhaps exaggerated, but many of them are corroborated by recent explorers. M. Dubois in his work, 'Timbuctoo the Mysterious,' affirms that salt is as highly valued as ever in this part of the world, in spite of its great abundance. He found salt mines in the heart of the desert near a place called Thegazza. For the Soudanese salt has from time immemorial represented, and still represents, the principal article of commerce and their most precious commodity. The long depression in the western Sahara bearing the name of El Djouf is a vast mine of rock salt. The salt mines of Thegazza were abandoned in the sixteenth century for those of Taoudemi, nearer Timbuctoo. The same explorer reports that even here the houses are built of rock salt and roofed with camel skins. Under a thin covering of sand the mineral is found in clearly marked layers. It is dug out in large lumps and trimmed down to blocks about three and a half feet long by one and one fourth feet in breadth. It looks like bars of red or gray-veined marble, and as they come out of the mine they are stamped with the trade-mark of the different contractors. At Timbuctoo they are embellished with designs in black paint and the name of some venerated chief is written on them in Arabic characters. They are then bound round with thongs of raw leather so arranged as to hold the parts together in case of fracture. The densest and whitest blocks are most in demand, those veined with red being of an inferior quality. Timbuctoo is the entrepot of the whole region lying southeast as far as Lake Chad. There is nothing that the Soudanese possesses that he refuses to part with for a lump of salt. To these people it is more valuable than gold itself.

In ancient as well as modern times the partaking of salt with another person was regarded as the symbol of friendship and hospitality. Among the Slavic peoples it is still the custom to welcome the stranger with a proffered gift of salt and bread; while in cases of dispute the Arab is wont to appeal to the bread and salt he has eaten with his adversary as proof of sincerity. The advice embodied in the injunction, 'Before you make a friend, eat a bushel of salt with him,' has been proverbial from the remotest times. Both Aristotle and Cicero refer to it as current in their time. An ancient commentator on Homer says that salt is regarded as the symbol of friendship, par excellence, either because it was offered to guests before anything else, or because salt more than any other substance is a prophylactic against decay. In Numbers certain offerings are enumerated as constituting 'a covenant of salt for ever before the Lord unto thee and thy seed with thee.' Perhaps the custom of handing down the salt vessel from generation to generation in Soman families has some connection with the idea of incorruption.

The word salt has impressed itself on our language in a curious way in our term 'salary.' So necessary did the Romans consider salt to the efficiency of their armies that each soldier was provided with a special ration of it, or with the means of providing it. This stipend was called salarium argentum. Civil officials or military officers when traveling in a civil capacity were also provided with this ration of salt. In later times, when the commodity was no longer difficult to obtain, money was paid in lieu of salt, but still ostensibly for the purpose of providing the same article. Generally, however, the allowance was sufficiently liberal to purchase a good many things besides sodium chloride. In time salt-money in ancient Rome came to be as comprehensive as 'stationery' in the phraseology of our home-grown legislators. The officials received no salary, yet the unfortunate provincials would generally have been glad to pay a definite amount rather than the presents (?) and perquisites which they were called upon to provide. A salary usually means a fixed sum, but there never has been framed a clear definition of 'necessary expenses.'

As indicated above, it is still a mooted question whether the consumption of salt is essential to the maintenance of animal life. If, as is now generally held, marine fauna antedated all others, it is reasonable to suppose that the principle of atavism would never carry living beings beyond a natural fondness for and even the necessity of consuming saline matter. On the other hand, it is maintained by some competent authorities that a sufficient quantity is taken into the system by the herbivora to supply all natural requirements. From these it passes into the bodies of the carnivora. Those who insist that sufficient salt is taken into the animal body indirectly with the food are equally positive that the excessive fondness for it exhibited by most men and some other animals is the result of a perverted taste. They cite as a parallel case the eagerness with which dogs and other brutes, to say nothing of human beings, devour sweetmeats, as evidence of a vitiated taste that readily results in more or less serious harm. Certain it is that no mineral substance has ever been so eagerly sought as an ingredient of food and it is probable that the quantity consumed is on the increase. But whether animal life is possible under conditions where salt is wholly absent can, in the present state of our knowledge, be neither categorically affirmed nor positively denied.