GOT SALT? from page 1                                 April 2008

Windmills built to pump seawater to salt works on outer Cape Cod, Provincetown, MA, 1841. The early salt works were established on the Massachusetts coast and at sites being used by American Indians. In areas like New England the climate made heating the brine necessary to evaporate the water adding to the cost. New England production never kept up with increasing industrial demand. Salt was shipped there from the Caribbean and Europe. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration photo
In the early days of commercial fishing in the Gulf of Maine, salt was a necessary ingredient. Before iced fish and fresh markets, fish was salted and dried. Ship after pre-colonial ship was packed with salted New England cod and sailed to Europe. American’s later shipped to the colonies and the Caribbean. The first European fishing operations here, which predated the so called discovery in 1492, brought ship loads of salt from Europe at the beginning of a season for salting their catch. Before they established fishing stations on the coast the fish was salted on board and shipped “green” without drying. Later they brought it to coastal fishing in stations in Maine or Canada to dry, increasing it’s value. Generation after generation in Newfoundland learned this process of “making fish”.

Basque fishermen, neighbors of the Portuguese, had been surrounded by the Roman Empire a couple of thousand years ago. As the Empire collapsed, Roman countries remained big consumers of salt fish. When the Basque ventured into Viking waters of the north east Atlantic after 1000 A.D., they discovered the Atlantic Cod. They had a huge market already established for it in the former Roman countries of the Mediterranean.

The cod’s white flesh was almost without fat and absorbed the salt quickly. It also air dried well and was easily shipped. The Basque and Portuguese followed the cod across the Atlantic to the Banks and the Gulf of Maine. New England banks cod soon became a major commodity in European countries.

Salt from evaporated sea water, brine wells or mined rock salt ranges in color from grey to white and coarse to fine. The best for salting fish was a course grade of sea salt. Lightly salted cod had to be dried to a low water content, required more care in processing and was more perishable, but it was also a more valuable product. This “light shore cure” was more like the original salted fish produced before the banks cod boom of the 1500’s. This boom and the development of big markets in Europe demanded a product that traveled well in warm climates and heavily salted fish did. Though nearly wooden, it could be shipped to Mediterranean countries, offloaded into wagons and hauled slowly over what we’d call jeep trails today.

New demands for salt drove the search, the innovation and production. Primitive humans followed animal trails to brine springs and rock salt. Settlements were sometimes made near these salt formations. A wide trail made by buffalo to a large salt lick near Lake Erie grew into the settlement at Buffalo, N.Y.

Scraping salt from salt water ponds that evaporated, boiling brine from wells and digging rock salt from mines were the common methods of production. When conventional means were played out or were not available new means were sought. Some of the earliest records of the collection and the manufacture of salt are from China.

Their production records go back to 6,000 B.C., they also fought the first war over salt in 250 B.C., had the first state monopoly on salt production and the first salt taxes. Engineering in China to produce salt also had a few outstanding firsts. Around 1050 A.D. percussion drilling was developed for salt brine extraction. Using an 8 foot rod with a sharp iron bit that was dropped though a bamboo tube to guide it, a 4 inch diameter hole was dug. A worker counter balanced the rod with his weight on a seesaw like wooden lever. Riding it up and down the lever caused the rod to drop over and over. After three to five years the narrow shaft would hit brine several hundred feet down. Earlier, hand dug open pit brine wells, some 300 feet deep, had released a gas that put workers “to sleep”, some permanently. It was discovered the gas burned and by 200 A.D. iron pots were boiling salt brine heated by the first known use of natural gas.

The production of salt didn’t begin with the salting of fish. Meat and ocean fish had always been dietary sources of salt. Egyptians salted fish, meat, birds and mummies before the earliest records of the Chinese salting fish and meat.

Soldiers rations contained salt at least as recently as the American Civil War. Armies needed it to maintain the calvary and workhorses that hauled the equipment. Armys brought a herd of cattle for food which required salt. Before the mechanized armies of the 20th century, when the smoke cleared on an given battlefield, pound for pound there was likely more dead animal than human. Minor wounds were treated with salt to reduce the chance of infection.

When the first settlers came to America salt works were established almost immediately. Some of these were set up where American Indians had been making salt. The first patent issued in America, a ten year monopoly, was granted by the Massachusetts colony for ideas on salt production in the 1600’s. The 17th century New England “salt box” style house was so called because it was shaped like the the salt storage box kept in most homes.

Salting fish however, was only one use, others included general household uses and salting furs. The settlers traded with the Indians for furs that they sold in the profitable European market. To induce the Indians to produce more furs the settlers had to supply them with salt. Salt cod and furs often left on the same ships.

Evaporation was the simplest early means of production in colonial America, but New England weather was not warm enough. The Caribbean Islands had been a stopping off place for the British navy, explorers and others to load their ships with salt. Naturally occurring salt water ponds there evaporated leaving a crust of salt up to eight inches thick. Sailors were dropped off passing ships to scape up the salt for months. When the ship returned they brought it out to their ship in row boats. Commercial salt operations were established in the Caribbean by the late 1600’s. More than sugar, molasses and rum, salt was the leading export of the Caribbean. Salt was shipped to New England fishing ports, salt cod went back to feed slaves on sugar plantations.

By the 1700’s many countries taxed salt, some had monopolies. The result of this of course, was a huge illegal salt market. The “underground” salt economy was big and functioned parallel to the official one. As a tax on a vital commodity, the taxes were about as close to a tax on air as government has been. The trading, shipping and smuggling of salt were pretty much a world wide activities. Arab traders traveled the salt road through the middle east and beyond.

France, in the run up to the revolution there in the 1780’s, was annually sending 3,000 citizens to jail or to their death for violating the salt laws. Salt cod brought up the Loire to Paris would be seized if smuggling was suspected. Tax agents shook what they determined to be excess salt from the fish calling the surplus salt contraband.

Liverpool, England had been a major salt producer. Liverpool salt was shipped as ballast in ships headed for the American south to load cotton bales for the return trip. Demand steadily grew, but there were few major changes in techniques for making salt in western Europe until the 1880’s. A system for heating salt in a vacuum was invented at this time and set up at Liverpool. The boiling point of liquid was lowered in a vacuum, saving fuel and speeding production. This effected the cost of fuel, the oldest problem in brine production. It was the beginning of the slide in the cost of salt and the change in it’s economic value. In the fishing industry, ice making equipment a few decades later would take a piece of the salt market.

The requirement that humans have for salt to maintain health makes it likely that salt has a history of being sought that is longer than recorded history. The more visible presence of salt in the past is marked by probably countless historic and written references. Roman legionnaires were paid with salt, their “salarium” is the origin of the word salary. Before them Greek slave traders paid for slaves with salt. If a slave they bought was less than expected, they said he was “not worth his salt”. The first New England settlers ate a lot of salted and smoked red herring. The smoking process gave it a reddish color. While hunting they threw bits of red herring on their trails confusing wolves with the strong smell. This, it is said, is the source and meaning of the phrase “a red herring” or a false trial.

The United states is the worlds largest maker and consumer of salt at 40 million metric tons a year. Only 8% of this is for food production, 51% is used to deice roads. The salt fish trade has gone through a significant reversal in a relatively short time. Salt, once fought over, smuggled and taxed is now plentiful enough to be dumped on roads. While the once abundant cod, herring and tuna are now scarce. Our contemporary salt lore or legacy is more likely to have something to do with body rot on Buicks or the path not taken was the unsalted one.