Salt and the Salt Box Proposal

The thing that stood out to me most was the Salt Box. During this era of history Salt was extremely expensive and so each house had a designated box on the wall to store their salt. I think this shows how much the world changes over time as we have now developed the technology to preserve salt without added objects


Salt box on the wall of the Irish Home at the Frontier Cultural Museum in Staunton, Virginia


Reflection on Volunteer Experience

I volunteered at the Frontier Culture Museum in the beginning of October and it was honestly an amazing experience for me. It provided me with the opportunity to dive deeper into the object I am doing my research on, into history itself and even into my own interest in history. Olivia and I had the amazing opportunity to be fitted for period costumes and participate in living history in these costumes. It allowed us to experience history physically and it also gave us some insight into whether or not this could be a possible future job for either of us. I found that I would actually be very interested in this kind of work in the future. We were able to learn information that we would not have learned if we hadn’t volunteered.

For example, we were both able to learn to use a spinning wheel. Olivia had more success at this task than I did. However, we were able to learn more about the functionality of these tasks and again were able to experience what daily life was for these people. I learned for example that because of the repetitive nature of a lot of these tasks that people would be able to do these tasks faster and much more efficiently than I could. I was barely able to carry the water but it was clear that the women of this time period had no choice and developed the strength. Overall, I deem this experience as an extremely insightful experience and I am glad that I had the opportunity to participate.



History of Salt

The Background of the Salt Box and it Uses and Impact on Daily Life

The Influence of Salt on Trading

Cuisine in Early Modern Europe

Uses of Salt

The Importance of Salt


Object Biography

”A gentleman’s greyhound and a saltbox: seek them at the fire” [1] This seventeenth-century proverb shows the importance of the saltbox, an object that I almost didn’t even see on the wall by the hearth. The hearth was considered to be the heart of the home as it was a source of life in pre-industrial society. It provided warmth, food, and protection. This proverb shows how essential the salt box was, to early modern living as it  was close to the heart of the home and was essential to many everyday aspects but in living everyday life there are things that we often take for granted. We forget how much goes into living everyday life. From our clothes to our food there are thousands of different things that go into the formation of all aspects of everyday life. During my experience at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia I noticed something very small on the wall that I had never really seen before in my life. Upon further examination, I found out that this object was actually a salt box. I had never really heard of them before as salt is now a table item. But as is seen through the study of history, things change rapidly throughout time, even down to the small everyday items that we hardly ever think of.

The salt box is relatively simple in construction but has an extremely important role in the progression of Early Modern Europe. My experience of almost not even noticing the salt box is actually a common experience “Being too ready to read objects at face value may likewise make us miss what was extraordinary about an otherwise ‘everyday’ food utensil. The salt box, in plain view in the early modern kitchen (and enduring in many a twenty-first-century kitchen), had a necessary place in both the foodways and the material culture of the early modern household, given salt’s importance in dry- and wet-preserving processes. But the salt box is an archetypal ‘small thing forgotten’: it may surface in inventories or be lost amongst the lumber and only appears a surviving artifact in museum collection highly decorated, as a ‘folk’ item.” [2] It is a very subtle object in the kitchen, and therefore, its purpose is not as obvious. As stated by the source the salt box is often overlooked in the field archeology as it’s importance and use is not always clear and is sometimes lost in less important things. These salt boxes were considered to be vital to the function of the kitchen as they contained one of the most important items of cooking in Early Modern Europe.[3]

Salt is an item with an interesting history. Salt has played into many aspects of life as it is an item of importance in trade. In addition, it has become more common as time goes on because salt has become less of a commodity and more of a necessity. In the modern world salt is used in almost all kinds of food, but back then it was a totally different world. In talking to one of the historical interpreters at the Frontier Culture Museum I was  able to gain a large amount of information on the functionality and importance to everyday life that the salt box had. The interpreter stated that these salt boxes were a common household item. They were often made by the owners of the house as their design and function of them were very simple. They were designed to keep moisture out of the salt, as this would spoil and ruin the salt. In modern development, scientists have been able make salt table-ready but back in the early modern period, the saltbox was the capability of their technology at the time.

There are many ways in which salt has had an importance in daily life for most of the Early Modern Period of European and throughout world history. The most obvious way in which salt was used in daily life was the preservation of food and foodstuffs. Humans have used salt for food because “Salt preserves. Until modern times it provided the principle way to preserve food.”[4] This simple use of salt is a primary reason of its importance. The nature of salt gives it a drying factor in which it able to take the moisture out of elements around it thereby allowing for preservation if it is used in regards to foodstuffs. [5] In addition to this salt is used for a number of other reasons. It is used in order to make food taste better as a seasoning of sorts.

Salt is surprising ingrained into world history. Salt is almost considered a source of life. One of the primary reasons for this is that salt is needed for a number of biological reasons. Cells are dependent on salt for their function as salt allows the body to maintain a healthy fluid level. [6] In addition, other important and vital biological functions depend on salt: “Sodium enables the transmission of nerve impulses around the body. It is an electrolyte, like Potassium, Calcium, and Magnesium; it regulates the electrical charges moving in and out of the cells in the body. It controls your taste, smell, and tactile processes. The presence of Sodium ions is essential for the contraction of muscles, including that largest and most important muscle, the heart. It is fundamental to the operation of signals to and from the brain. Without sufficient sodium, your senses would be dulled and your nerves would not function.” [7] Therefore, because of this biological necessityeven though salt is natural in some foods, it is also added in order help with the regulation of health.

As stated earlier salt has for most of human history been considered valuable to humanity. According to the history of early Roman society, Salt was considered so valuable that the soldiers were paid in salt. This is where the word ‘salary’ originates  which exhibits  the importance of salt to people in general.[8] It is amazing to think that such a simple compound can have such a profound impact on society as salt has had. In examining history, salt has come up time and time again as an object of contention and has been connected by many scholars to the issue of war.

Salt also has a surprising role in the development of religion. Interestingly enough, salt is at the root of the word salvation as the covenant in both the Old and new Testament was often sealed with salt.[9] In addition to this, because of the extreme importance that salt had to daily life in the ancient world, salt was worshiped by a number of different societies such as the Greeks, Romans, and the Jews. Their worshipping of salt shows that salt was considered to be an important object. It is a relatively well-known fact,the salt box is kept near the hearth and that is because “Salt was also a freighted cultural substance: it was biblically resonant, liturgically important (used by Catholics to make Holy Water) and a much-vaunted weapon against devils and evil spirits. The salt box placed at the heart of the kitchen hearth-a known opening for evil spirits to enter, in the psycho-topography of the early modern household- was thus both mundane and potentially marvelous. ” [10] It is this religious importance that adds to the unexpected importance of the salt and the salt box in modern day society.

The most obvious question that is connected with salt is where did it come from? Salt is a mineral that comes from the earth, and thus it is usually mined. Since early modern Europe was a time period in which there was no preservation, it was key to the preservation of foodstuffs. There were areas within Europe that specialized in the production of salt, and one such country was Portugal. The salt industry in Portugal was so strong that it was produced for the international market. However, “only Aveiro and Setubal were able to place their output in the international market, being able to produce enough to feed both the local and international markets and send a better quality of product abroad.” [11]

In seeing how important salt is to society, the linkage to events in history is inevitable. The most influential aspect of salt on modern day society is the taxes that have been historically placed on thembecause of its importance as a commodity. For example, gabelles were common in France for most of the Early Modern Period. Gabelles were an infamous taxthat allowed for monopolies on the salt trade. [12] These taxes had a huge impact on everyday life for the people of France because the punishment for smuggling salt was severe. One such punishment for smuggling salt was severe “There are whole families who for the want of salt, eat not soup sometimes in a whole week although it be their common nourishment. A man in that case grieved to see his wife and children in starving languishing condition, ventures to go abroad to buy salt in the provinces where it is three parts in four cheaper. If discovered, he is certainly sent to the galleys. It is a very melancholy sight to see a wife and children lament their father, whom they see laden with chains and irrevocably lost; and that for no other cause but endeavoring to procure subsistence for those to whom he gave birth.” [13] As seen by this example, the people were in desperate need of salt,and this added to their desire to revolt against the French government. [14] There are other examples of taxes that were placed on the people in this period like in the Americas, Italy and France. There have been major wars fought for the access to salt, like the Venice salt war.

As with most recipes in the Early Modern Era, salt was a key aspect of the process. In the recipe below, used to make carp pye, salt  is a main ingredient along with other semi-common items “To Make a Carp Pye. After you have drawn, wash’d and scalded a fair large Carp, season it with Pepper, Salt and Nutmeg, and then put it into a Coffin, with good store of sweet Butter, and the cast on Raisins  of the Sun, the juice of Limons, and some slices of Orange-peels, and then sprinkling on a little Vinegar, close it up and bake it.” [15]

Salt and the salt box has a large importance on history that we would not often think to be the case. Something as small as a box on the wall or a small salt crystal can have enormous implication on the span of human history. Salt reaches into almost all realms of society in the early modern period for example, the economy, religion, trade, history and politics all were impacted by salt.



[1][2][3][10]Richardson, Catherine, Tara Hamling, and David R. M. Gaimster. The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe. London: Routledge, 2016.

[4] Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. New York: Walker and, 2002.

[5] Antunes, Catia. “The Commercial Relationship between Amsterdam and the Portuguese Salt-Exporting Ports: Aveiro and Setubal, 1580-1715.” Journal of Early Modern History 12, no. 1 (2008): 25-53. doi:10.1163/138537808×297144.

[6] [7] “Salt & the Function of Our Cells – The Salt Association.” The Salt Association. Accessed November 24, 2016.

[8] [11] Rokade, Tushar. “Salary: Salt Money – Interesting Etymologies – Quora.” Salary: Salt Money – Interesting Etymologies – Quora. Accessed November 24, 2016.

[9] “A Brief History of Salt.” Time. 1982. Accessed October 05, 2016.,9171,925341,00.html.

[12][13][14] David Bloch. “Legabelle France – SALT MADE THE WORLD GO ROUND.” Legabelle France – SALT MADE THE WORLD GO ROUND. Accessed November 24, 2016.

[15]”To Make a Carp-Pye.” To Make a Carp-Pye. Accessed November 24, 2016.