Salt Making


Colonial Americans depended on Great Britain for many necessities. Primary among them was salt, the essential ingredient in curing meats and preserving foods through the winter. At the start of the American Revolution, the British Navy blockaded American ports and largely shut off the supply of imported salt. In Philadelphia, salt prices shot upward. Starting in July 1775, the Continental Congress passed resolutions designed to hold down salt prices and spur domestic salt-making. By early 1776, several states passed measures to fund salt works on their coasts.

 Thomas Wharton, a member of the Council of Safety, corresponded with Thomas Savadge as Savadge tried to launch the Pennsylvania Salt Works in Tom's River, New Jersey. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
Thomas Wharton, a member of the Council of Safety, corresponded with Thomas Savadge as Savadge tried to launch the Pennsylvania Salt Works in Toms River, New Jersey. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Lacking their own coast, Pennsylvanians looked to the nearby New Jersey shore for salt-making opportunities. In May 1776, Thomas Savadge (d. 1779), a Philadelphia merchant who had failed at iron mongering a decade earlier, proposed to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety a plan for a large-scale salt works on the Jersey shore. Even before the council agreed to underwrite the plan, Savadge went to New Jersey and purchased 500 acres of salt marsh near Toms River. Within a few weeks, he hired more than twenty laborers and started constructing the Pennsylvania Salt Works. The men constructed gated canals for trapping sea water, brought in pumps for moving the water into drying vats, and built “houses” lined with large kettles for boiling salt brine into usable salt. In October, Savadge reported back to Philadelphia on his considerable progress, and hinted that the salt works were nearly ready to begin large-scale salt production.

However, Savadge was overoptimistic. In December 1776, the Continental Army withdrew from New Jersey and emboldened Loyalists assumed control of the state. Fearing the works would be attacked, Savadge rode out to meet a John Morris, the Loyalist colonel in charge of the area. Savadge convinced Morris not to burn down the salt works, but Savadge had to leave the works. When the Continental Army retook central New Jersey in January 1777, Savadge returned, but the workers had abandoned the site. In a series of letters to Philadelphia in early 1777, Savadge complained about lacking laborers, lacking funds, and being vulnerable to enemy attack. Throughout 1777 he asked Pennsylvania for greater support and its government responded with additional funds and a 25-man guard. It also pressured the New Jersey government to grant militia exemptions for salt-works laborers. Despite this support, the Pennsylvania Salt Works were still not producing salt by the end of 1777. Communications between Savadge and his benefactors became strained. Thomas Wharton (1735-78) of the Council of Safety warned: “We have been most egregiously disappointed and are almost induced to give up the matter.” Savadge responded that he expected the salt works to produce 30,000 bushels of salt in the next year.

In April 1778, a Loyalist raiding party razed the competing salt works at Manasquan and Shark River, prompting Savadge to again request a new guard and additional money. This time, the Pennsylvania Council of Safety was unsympathetic. In a terse letter on behalf of the council Thomas Wharton refused Savadge’s request and called the salt works “long in the hand” and “altogether fruitless.” The council appointed James Davison to inspect the salt works. By the end of 1778, Savadge was removed from managing the salt works and back in Philadelphia. He died while waiting on the Pennsylvania government to settle his accounts. There is no evidence to suggest that the Pennsylvania Salt Works ever produced any salt. The Pennsylvania Salt Works were sold at public auction in November 1779 to New Jersey investors who were able to produce modest amounts of salt from the failed works. But once the salt works at Toms River were razed by Loyalist raiders in March 1782, they were never rebuilt.

The Pennsylvania Salt Works and the comparably-large Union Salt Works, at Brielle, were both failures. Up and down the Jersey shore, nine of eighteen known salt works were destroyed during the war. But several of the smaller operations, including the Friendship Works owned by Thomas Hopkins of Philadelphia, were successful. However, the salt-making boom of the Revolutionary War years was temporary. By war’s end, imported salt from Europe returned to the American market and pushed the domestic salt-makers into retirement. The Jersey shore was never again a salt-making hotbed. In the late 1700s, Americans discovered inland salt deposits, including some minable sources in northwestern Pennsylvania near the New York border. But competing salt licks near the Cheat River in present-day West Virginia and the Ohio River in eastern Kentucky were closer to major navigable rivers and became more significant suppliers. Salt-making never took hold as a major industry in Pennsylvania.

Michael Adelberg has been researching the American Revolution in New Jersey for twenty-five years. He is the author of “ ‘Long in the Hand and Altogether Fruitless’: The Pennsylvania Salt Works and Salt-Making on the New Jersey Shore during the American Revolution” in Pennsylvania History, and articles published in The Journal of Military History and The Journal of the Early Republic. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University.


Salt Works in New England

Library of Congress

During the colonial era, Americans imported most of their salt, important for food preservation before refrigeration, from England. A blockade by the Royal Navy early in the Revolution prevented foreign imports to the colonies. The rising cost of salt led to a boom in the construction of American salt works in coastal areas, including several works on the New Jersey coast owned by Philadelphians. This 1776 engraving shows a typical Revolutionary American salt works in Salisbury, New Hampshire, on the Merrimack River. Philadelphians were hopeful that the Pennsylvania and Union Salt Works in New Jersey would provide them with a domestic source of salt, but production was low and the works were subject to sabotage by the British. The end of the naval blockade and productive salt mines in Ohio and West Virginia eventually put an end to salt-making attempts in the Greater Philadelphia region.

Thomas Hopkins' Journal of the Friendship Salt Works

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Quaker Thomas Hopkins of Philadelphia ran the Friendship Salt Works on the Great Egg Harbor River, New Jersey, during the American Revolution. He kept a journal between August and October 1780 of his travels between the city and the New Jersey shore and of his operation of the Friendship Works. Perhaps by virtue of its smaller size, the Friendship Salt Works was not sabotaged by British troops during the war like the larger Pennsylvania and Union operations. According to the journal, Friendship Salt Works was plagued with internal problems and conflicts with local residents, and the entire works was offered for sale in September 1780.

Cross-section of a Salt Boiling House

Wellcome Library, London.

Salt making in the eighteenth century was a simple process. Salt water was pumped from salt marshes into a boiling house. The water was collected in large cauldrons where it was boiled to evaporate the water and leave behind salt. This engraving shows both exterior and interior views of a salt boiling house. Thomas Hopkins' 1780 journal of the Friendship Salt Works paints a less-simple image: The constantly burning fires consumed large amounts of dry wood, which had to be hauled to the site and chopped. The fires made for extremely uncomfortable working conditions in the summer, exacerbated by thick clouds of mosquitoes. The labor was exhausting and frustrating for the laborers. Hopkins also complained of sabotage by locals, who diverted the works' water supply with a ditch in October. Despite all of these problems, Friendship was one of the most successful of the New Jersey salt operations, producing up to ten baskets of salt per day during the months Hopkins kept his journal.

Thomas Wharton

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Thomas Savadge's Pennsylvania Salt Works in Toms River, New Jersey, was funded by the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, a revolutionary governing committee in opposition to the Royal appointees. The Pennsylvania Salt Works was troubled from the start by problems with funding and labor that delayed production. The Council of Safety initially bolstered financial support and provided the Pennsylvania Salt Works with guards to ward off enemy attacks. Their support waned after two years without any salt being produced by the works. Council member Thomas Wharton, shown here, remained in correspondence with Savadge throughout this period and penned a 1778 letter informing Savadge that the Council was refusing further requests for support.

Wharton was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1735 into a family of prominent Quakers. After protesting the Trade Act of 1774, Wharton was appointed to the Council of Safety and rose to become its president in 1776. In 1777, Wharton was elected president of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a position he held until his death in March of the next year.

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Related Reading

Adelberg, Michael. The American Revolution in Monmouth County. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2010.

Adelberg, Michael. “ ‘Long in the Hand and Altogether Fruitless’: The Pennsylvania Salt Works and Salt-Making on the New Jersey Shore during the American Revolution.” Pennsylvania History 80 (2013): 215-242.

Bowman, Larry. “The Scarcity of Salt in Virginia during the American Revolution,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 77 (1969): 464–72.

Dorwart, Jeffrey. Cape May County, New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Hilldrup, R. L. “The Salt Supply of North Carolina during the Revolutionary War,” North Carolina Historical Review 22 (1945): 393–417.

“Journal of Thomas Hopkins of the Friendship Salt Company, New Jersey 1780,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 42 (1918): 46–61.

Paine, Robert Treat. The Art of Making Common Salt. Philadelphia: R. Aiken, 1776.

Pierce, Arthur. Smugglers’ Woods. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960.

Quinn, William. The Salt Works of Historic Cape Cod. Barnstable, Mass.: Parnassus, 1993.


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