Salt, the white gold?  Share

Today, we use salt to season food, for instance on French fries. But do you know that throughout history salt was used on a far more larger scale than nowadays? And that it was a common means of payment?

Before the discovery and distribution of electricity and modern refrigeration, in other words the invention of the fridge (1923), salt was, for a long time, the most important means to preserve meat, fish and vegetables. In our regions, where there were cold winters, people also used icehouses, but in Southern Europe, Asia and Africa it was too hot to preserve food and salt was the only solution. Moreover, salt is essential to survive, especially for people who sweat a lot. Therefore, slaves in tropical areas, such as the West Indies, were served salty meals.

Producing salt

Throughout history, and still today, there have been three ways to extract salt. This results in three types of salt: sea salt, rock salt and lixiviated salt. To extract salt from sea water, a basin was filled with sea water and after a long period of evaporation, the surface became encrusted with salt. This method was and is used everywhere in the world and dates way back in history. Of course, the people who lived on islands or nearby the coast could profit from this and had a great advantage over people living in the inland. In the areas where the sun did not shine very often people searched and developed others ways to heat salt water. The Romans for instance filled pottery with water and warmed them up. Finally, they broke the jars and discovered piles of salt.

© W. Wouters

© W. Wouters

Salt was also produced in mines or extracted from rocks laying on the earth’s surface. The salt was found in thick layers of sedimentary rocks, which were formed by evaporated geological lakes. The beds of rock salt are mined or quarried by the usual excavation methods or by drilling wells into the salt strata and pumping water down to dissolve the salt; the brine is then returned to the surface, where it is processed like natural brine.

There are several salt mines in Europe, for instance the famous Wieliczka salt mine, one of the largest in Poland. Nowadays, this mine is recorded as a world heritage site and it has been a tourist attraction since the fifteenth century. Copernicus, Goethe and Pope John Paul II figure on its visitor’s list. The name of the Austrian city “Salzburg” (Salz = salt) proves that there were salt mines in Austria as well. Outside Europe we encounter other mines, mainly in Africa (Ethiopia, Angola, Sahara) and America (Peru, United States).

The last method to produce salt was lixiviation, a technique frequently used in some regions in New Guinea and Central Africa. In these highly situated regions people did not have the possibility of deriving salt from sea water or producing it in mines. Instead, salt was extracted from river water which contained natural salt solutions.

Salt, a means of payment and a source of wealth throughout history

Although salt could be found almost all over the world, the fact that it fulfilled a universal need ensured its undeniable value. As a consequence, the use, exploitation and trade of salt was not limited to a specific area but a global affair. The main benefits of salt, i.e. its indispensable need and worldwide use implied at the same time a disadvantage: because salt was consumed it could not be used as a store of value. Salt thus only responded to two of the three basic functions of money (i.e. means of payment, unit of account and store of value).

In Europe, the use of salt dates back at least to the 10th century B.C., in the Celtic era. The Celts extracted salt from mines and exchanged it with, amongst others, the Romans. The Romans imitated the use of salt as a means of payments from the Celts and payed their legionnaires, officers and civil servants with salt cakes. This explains the origin of the English word salary, which is derived from the Latin term “salarium” (> “sal”, salt). Analogously, the word “soldier” is derived from the French word “solde” (payment).

Nor can the importance of salt in more recent times be underestimated. Fierce attempts of various kings and states to impose taxes on salt demonstrates this: e.g. the French king Philip IV installed the dreaded salt tax “gabelle”. The French reacted against the tax by hiding as much salt as possible. However, since the houses could be very humid in those days, salt had to be kept in dry places to protect it from becoming a hard mass again. Ideally salt should be kept close to the fireplace, although in this way it was easily noticed by tax inspectors that could drop in unexpectedly. Therefore, the well-known chairs with hidden containers were invented, on which the maid sat all daylong and stayed there at any cost, to guard her treasure.

Amolé or salt cake from Ethiopia (weighed approx. 700 to 900 grams, 20 to 25 cm). Is still in use today

Amolé or salt cake from Ethiopia (weighed approx. 700 to 900 g, 20 to 25 cm). Is still in use today

During the Belgian colonisation of Congo, the colonists encountered civilisations that used salt intensively as a means of payment. Even after the official adoption of the Belgian franc in 1887 it remained in circulation. In fact the Congolese refused the new currency and held on to their old ones, e.g. salt. They also used special techniques to protect salt, by winding them into leaves of the banana tree. By licking at the ends that were left on both sides of the cake the Congolese checked whether the salt was of good quality and not a forgery. Finally, the Congolese used different names for salt cakes, according to the producer, for example dibanga or dibanda (synonyms for salt). In 1929, one dibanga could be exchanged for 20 Belgian francs.

And today? Apart from being a seasoning, there are other numerous applications of salt at the moment. In fact, modern industry uses salt in approximately 14000 ways, such as producing medications, deicing roads in winter, fertilizing soil, fabricating soap, softening water and colouring cloths. The value of salt varied in place and time, depending on the distance to the mines and other exploitations, production costs, wages, … An example of very expensive salt could be found in the Sahara in the Middle Ages. When the famous Moroccan explorer, Ibn Battuta (1356) crossed the Sahara to Timbuktu, he noticed that “blacks used salt during their transactions like other people used gold and silver”.

After a while, a legend arose claiming that one could exchange salt for pure gold. This legend found its origin in the ways of bidding between merchants, who each put their pile of salt and gold in front of each other. To raise the bid, the merchants had to put some extra salt or gold on their pile until both merchants were satisfied. This use was misunderstood insofar that people believed that both products had the same value. In fact, salt did not have the same value as gold, but obviously the value of this white gold could no longer be denied!

Thomas Wieme
Museum guide


  • Kurlansky Mark, Salt, A world History, New York, Walker and Company, 2002, 484 p.