The next time you knock over a salt cellar and throw a pinch of the salt that spills out of it over your left shoulder to ward off bad luck, bear in mind that those few white grains would at one time have formed part of someone’s wages. The word salarium, salary, comes from the fact that Roman soldiers were paid part of their income in salt. It’s also thought that the word ‘soldier’ itself comes from the Latin sal dare, to give salt. If you look at common phrases such as ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘he’s not worth his salt’, ‘below the salt’, etc. you can get an idea of how important salt was. And it still is, because without salt in our diet we couldn’t survive.
It’s said that the ability to preserve food with salt was one of the foundations of civilization, and the salt trade was of major importance, not only because of its commercial value but also because it allowed foods to be preserved, letting people travel much greater distances than they could without having preserved foods, never knowing what fresh foods would be available. Salt was difficult to obtain, and so became a highly valued trade item. By the Bronze age many salt roads had been established, such as the via Salaria in Italy, which ran from Rome to the Adriatic coast, a distance of 242 kilometres.
By the late Middle Ages the expanding fishing fleets of the Low Countries, (Belguim, the Netherlands, and parts of northern France and western Germany) needed more salt than could be produced locally, so had to buy it from the Iberian Peninsula. It was said that Spain could have brought their northern neighbours to their knees at the end of the sixteenth century if they had blocked the sale of salt, such was its importance. But pepper was also important, and records show that when the Gauls invade Rome they demanded twenty thousand pounds of pepper as part of the ransom.
In medieval England salt was expensive and only affordable by the higher ranks of society. The nobility sat at the ‘high table’ and their servants at lower trestle tables. The salt was placed in the centre of the high table and only those of rank had access to it. The gave rise to the phrase, ‘below the salt’, describing someone of lesser importance, as that was where the servants sat, on the lower tables below their masters.
As valuable as salt was, it has a tendency to attract moisture and become lumpy. Originally small bowls or containers, usually with a spoon, had been used at the table, (the original salt cellar). In 1863 a US patent was issued for a salt shaker with a small built-in agitator to break up the caked salt, but the usual approach to creating a salt that was fine enough to use in a shaker was to try and remove the moisture-absorbing elements. Eventually researchers changed direction, and tried to discover an additive that would effectively cover each grain of salt and absorb moisture.
In 1911, Joy Morton, owner of the Morton Salt Company of Chicago solved the problem by adding magnesium carbonate to their product, which made it possible to pour salt from a sealed container. But it was to be more than a decade until the first sets of figural salt and pepper shakers were commercially produced.