“First there is salt, without which practically nothing is edible.” Plutarch (46-120 AD)
Today, we take salt for granted. It is a common condiment — inexpensive and readily available to sprinkle on our foods. But it hasn’t always been that way. As Mark Kurlansky expressed in his 2002 study on the topic, “from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.” Necessary to sustain human life, salt was difficult to produce and access to it was often controlled by rulers and other authority figures. Wars were fought over salt. Cities flourished near sources of salt and routes traversing Asia, Africa, and Europe were established to trade the commodity. It was considered valuable enough that Roman soldiers were paid a salarium to purchase salt (sal) as part of their provisions. Our word “salary” is derived from the Latin salarium, or salt money, hence the saying that “a person is not worth his salt” means he is not worth his salary. Or, as Robert Lewis Stephenson wrote about the sailor Abraham Gray who changed his mind about joining the mutineers in Treasure Island (1883), “It was plain from every line of his body that our new hand was worth his salt.”
The English hoped that their American colonies might be a source of salt even though Thomas Harriot — part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1585 expedition to Roanoke Island — noted that the only salt used by the Carolina Indians was derived from burning the stalks of a certain plant. Harriot said that he and his fellow colonists used its leaves for potherbs. Scientists today believe these plants were in the Artiplex genus, like mountain spinach, which has a salty taste. Similarly, Robert Beverley commented in his 1705 The History and Present State of Virginia that the only salt used by the Virginia Indians was “the ash of stick weed and hickory.”
In 1613, Englishman Samuel Argall noted that salt would be easy to make on the Eastern Shore of Virginia “if there were only ponds digged, for that I found Salt Kerned [kernels] where the water had overflowed in places.” One year later a contingent of 21 men was sent from Jamestown to Smith’s Island on the Eastern Shore to extract salt from sea water by washing salty sand and boiling the water in iron kettles suspended over wood fires. This method required lots of firewood and an estimated 400 gallons of seawater to produce just one bushel of salt. By 1620, the “toylesome” salt-making operation was nonexistent and, with few supplies from England of the substance, the Virginia colonists were recorded as being “exceedingly distempered by eating pork and other meats fresh and unseasoned.” A new attempt at creating salt was deemed a priority by the Virginia Company and it supported men brought in from France who were skilled in salt production by the less costly method of solar evaporation using clay-lined ponds. It was hoped that the output would not only serve the Virginia colony but would be productive enough to provide salt for sale to the fisheries working off the North American coast. This effort and another in 1627 appear to have been disappointing for, in 1630, the Virginia General Court declared that salt manufacture should start again. Salt production on the Eastern Shore never appeared to meet the demand for meat preservation, especially by the planters raising cattle and pigs. Its need in the colony was so acute that in 1660 the General Assembly offered an incentive of 10,000 pounds of tobacco to Eastern Shore planter Edmund Scarborough if he could successfully produce 800 bushels of salt. By the 18th century, Virginian’s were reliant on imports from Britain and the British West Indies for a good deal of their salt, a problem that became all too evident during the Revolutionary War.
In 17th-century Europe, all people ate salted foods as salting was the primary way to preserve meat. Only those who were well-off, however, could afford to serve salt as a condiment at the dining table. A special container, known as a salt cellar, was placed at the head of the table near the host and guest(s) of honor. Those sitting at the other end of the table, or “below the salt,” were seen as being of lower status. These individuals may have been served by a number of smaller and less impressive salt containers. One would use the tip of his knife to transfer a serving of salt to his plate — it was considered uncouth to use one’s fingers!
As a visual representation of a household’s wealth, salt cellars became important social markers. The wealthiest had highly ornamented silver standing salts that were much larger than needed to contain the amount of salt consumed at the meal. Some of the specially-commissioned salts could be over a foot tall and incorporate ornate sculptural forms such as sailing ships. At least one salt was included in prizes of silver plate worth over ₤1,000 to be won in the Virginia Company’s 1612 lottery for the support of their Virginia colony. For their investment of ₤62.10s, the Grocers’ Company of London won ₤13.10s in cash and were given the opportunity by lottery officials to pay an additional 29s.6d. for a “faire round Salt with a cover of Silver all gilt” valued at ₤14.19s.6d. The Grocers were apparently happy with the deal for they recorded that they “want Salts” and they paid the difference
Less-expensive salts, copying the earlier forms of the silver vessels, were made in pewter and tin-glazed earthenware. One such salt is in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. It is a tin-glazed earthenware standing salt made in the Netherlands. It reflects the form of the silver salt seen in the 1640-45 still-life painting by Pieter Claesz. Painted in underglaze blue with a solitary Chinese figure sitting in a scrubby landscape, the JYF salt was probably made in Delft c. 1680-1700. Drawing elements from popular imports of Asian porcelain wares, Dutch and English potters turned out hundreds of tin-glazed wares with a similar chinoiserie motif that has traditionally been known as “Chinaman-in-grasses.” A more accurate description of the lone robed figure, has been suggested by Sarah Fayen Scarlett. She argues that the description “Chinese Scholar” links the motif more accurately to the “narratives found on late Ming dynasty porcelain” from which it evolved. Images on Chinese porcelain were taken from woodblock illustrations of literary sources familiar to the Chinese culture. For the Dutch and English potters trying to emulate the expensive Asian wares, the meanings of the iconography were lost and unimportant.
Probate inventories and archaeological investigations have revealed that salts were used in the households of the wealthier Virginia planters in the 17th century. One wonders what they would think of our nonchalance about the condiment today. They would certainly be aghast that the once treasured substance is now served without cost in paper packets or stored in plastic or glass shakers. But they might understand the superstition that spilt salt brings a person bad luck unless he throws a pinch of it over his left shoulder. You may take that belief with a “pinch of salt,” but the practice brings to mind, if only in that moment, the centuries of mankind for whom salt was a precious substance not to be wasted.
Bly Straube, Ph.D., FSA
Senior Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Philip Alexander Bruce (1935) Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century, Vol. II, New York: Peter Smith.
Robert C. Johnson (1966) “The Lotteries of the Virginia Company, 1612-1621,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 74: 3, pp. 259-292.
Susan Myra Kingsbury (ed.) (1906-35) The Records of the Virginia Company of London. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
Mark Kurlansky (2002) Salt: A World History. New York: Walker and Company.
Pierre Laszlo (2001) Salt: Grain of Life. New York: Columbia University Press.
Terence H. O’Brien (1960) The London Livery Companies and the Virginia Company The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 68: 2, pp. 137-155.
Sarah Fayen Scarlett (2011) “The Chinese Scholar Pattern: Style, Merchant Identity, and the English Imagination,” in Robert Hunter (ed.) Ceramics in America 2011, (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Chipstone Foundation), pp. 3–45.