ALMOST SINCE CIVILIZATIONS FORMED salt has been a medium of exchange. In most cases, however, not for long. Salt mines, springs, salines officially were soon taken over by government whose taxation, rents, leasing were large additions to the treasuries of county, state or federal.
It is noted that very soon after the founding of Rome the salt works at Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber River were established. Private individuals were forbidden to “engage in its preparation.”
The 1900 Sears, Roebuck catalog sold both bags of table salt and barrels from its Grocery Department.
The 1886 Grocer’s Handbook mentions that table salt was on the shelf in 3 pound cloth bags.
Salt is one of the oldest preservatives used to enhance the keeping qualities of meat, fish and vegetables though not necessarily in the same way. It is used extensively in making pickles, sauerkraut, curing olives and in many other items such as yogurt, buttermilk and cheeses. Salt’s usefulness is practically limitless.
The “Grocer’s Handbook, 1886” notes that “modern scientists” say that while salt is not a necessary condiment or antiseptic it was little if at all used by Native Americans prior to the coming of the Europeans. Ashes of hickory were said to be used in place of salt! But some salt licks as they were often called, springs, caves, etc. were visited by ancient tribes and animals in the present states of New York, West Virginia, Florida and etc.
The exclusive right to manufacture salt by a private citizen, Samuel Winslow, was granted in 1641 by the “State” of Massachusetts.
All along the northern East Coast fisheries took precedent and using salt to preserve them was a huge item of necessity. The Plymouth Colony being an auxiliary of the fishery could manufacture salt as well as Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the same period.
As early as 1620 the remote Virginia colony was importing salt to New England. As in many cases, salt manufacture became a “first industry” as it was in Illinois even before it became a state.
Already in New York salines at Syracuse, Salina and Geddes the government supplied brine for making salt receiving one cent a bushel. Those salines were discovered as early as 1654 but were not worked as big business until 1790. By 1802 production had reached well-above nine million bushels annually. Wells were dug two hundred, three hundred feet deep with salt water forced up to be evaporated, it taking back in the day thirty to forty-five gallons of salt water to make a bushel of dry salt weighing up to fifty pounds.
In the 1886 handbook it noted that despite exploitation of America’s salines we still imported half of our demand. It might be imported from the Tyrol, mountain ranges in Austria, Russia, Chesire and Staffordshire, Worcestershire in Britain.
Author of Salt’s “rough sketch,” not complete here remarks the America’s output is much better than that of Spain or the Azores that have a “sharpness not at all agreeable.” He also names those types on the market such as Ashton’s Liverpool fine, Higgin’s Phoenix, Deakins, Washington, Enon’s, Worthington”—all fine and Liverpool ground besides coarse kinds in rock salt from Turk’s Island, Mediterranean, Bonair, Inagua, Curacoa, Lisbon and Cadiz. Are these types familiar to any of you specialty cooks?
Penderry’s catalog from Texas has columns and columns of salts from all around the globe. Interesting!
Unfortunately, in some places salt was synonymous with slavery especially in the southern states. But before Illinois was given statehood in 1818 many of its codes, “black laws” leaned heavily towards the keep of slaves, white indentures and so forth. There were many tiny details that could be taken as pro-slavery. Three of the first four Illinois governors were owners of registered slaves—inherited, however, and like the second governor, Edward Coles, an abolitionist. It was a chaotic time. Read up on the multitude of issues in this period.
In order to fill the labor shortage it appeared logical to bring in Negro slaves, they belonging to plantation owners in Kentucky or Tennessee. Leasing them didn’t seem like slavery, did it?!
For decades present day Shawneetown and the neighboring village of Equality had famous salines noted for their depth and breadth where one to two thousand “slaves” worked at cutting trees and hauling it for fuel to carry on the evaporative process from which the brine dried into salt. Acres and acres of large, shallow clay pans lay about “the works,” the Sun and Wind evaporating the watery substance in the pans or cast iron kettles in which spring water was kept in a moving—a simple operation. At the end of the salt was scooped from the kettles into barrels (made at the site). Water in amounts of 125 to 280 gallons was necessary to produce a fifty pound bushel basket. A day’s issue was from eighty to a hundred bushels. They were loaded on ox-drawn wagons to river-side Shawneetown, transferred to keelboats and taken to waiting markets on the Ohio or as far as New Orleans, Mississippi-way.
To show importance of the salines Congress appointed the Secretary of the Treasury to oversee collecting tax money or leases for the salt reserves. Leases near Equality produced nearly thirty thousand dollars in about ten years. Reference notes that early governors closely watched the rents on the salines because they were a sure revenue and were protecting the “public interest.”
Shawneetown became a metropolis of southern Illinois, its “salt money” being collected as early as 1803. Buildings with Grecian columns, empirical stone structures lined the streets, more impressive than lake-front Chicago. Its architecture and past importance have sadly crumbled.
Besides building Shawneetown, other communities were begun because salines were their foundation: In 1819, Gallatin County’s springs produced from two to three hundred thousand bushels of salt which sold for fifty to seventy-five cents a bushel. It was used in the home and as a meat preservative. And although there were five salines operating there in 1828 it lacked the quality of a competitive Charleston, West Virginia, noted for its flavor.
Changes in fuel supplies, wood to coal made a difference in production. Nearby coal mines could be used. (Did you know Illinois has the largest coal reserve of any state in the Union, underlying more than two-thirds of the state; in some places fifteen feet thick?!)
Other towns developed from salines were Danville, 1819, long an attraction for Indians and animals. Vermillion County salines turned a profit for over a dozen years.
Conrad Will had little profit near Murphysboro but also ran a tanyard with Negro labor.
Bond County also had a saline that the state sold in 1833, four years after the Danville salt works closed. Shawneetown’s closed in 1873. New methods as new markets came forward. The slavery issue was dampened by the fact that with the salines closing, labor was not in short supply as it had been. There were other ideas and ideals that made abolitionism a major platform.
Detours often rise in preparing PDQ Me. This began as an article concerning canning—having saved a sketch of Ball brand jars, for, perhaps, twenty years and having it still last week, it is now so far ‘LOST.” Where the heck is it?
Then in looking for information about food preparation, salting and pickling one of the processes, those items concerning salt and its influence on the building of Illinois including funding the first state prison—stone, at Alton with “salt money,” we’re still looking for the jar sketch. Wish me luck.