Saleratus to Baking Soda

Around the year 1775 industrial age chemists discovered that if you expose pearlash (potassium carbonate) to carbon dioxide gas the result was potassium bicarbonate, a compound that’s about twice as potent as regular old pearlash. The creation was dubbed “saleratus”, a Latin word meaning “aerated salt.” The discovery prompted an American entrepreneur by the name of Nathan Read to try making the stuff, which he did by suspending pearlash over vats of fermenting rum which produce — you guessed it — CO2. Very clever indeed. Read’s saleratus came on the market in 1788. But the stuff never really caught on as a leavener, mostly because it wasn’t terribly pure and hence not very reliable.

A purer, higher quality saleratus was available from Europe at the time. It was chemically different but made via a similar process, namely by exposing another carbonate compound — this time sodium carbonate or “soda ash” — to carbon dioxide gas. Since that saleratus was imported, however, it was a more expensive product than most American home bakers could afford. Which is why, in 1846, American entrepreneurs Dr. Austin Church and John Dwight decided it was time to make the stuff domestically. Their product, called “Dwight’s Saleratus”, was made in the European style, meaning that it was actually sodium bicarbonate, what we now call “baking soda”.

In 1876 Dwight changed the name of his product to “Dwight’s Soda, Cow Brand” and adopted a distinctive cow logo (the connection being that it took sour milk, what was then known as “clabber” to activate it). His partner Austin Church had left the company by that time to found another sodium bicarbonate business, the firm we now know as Arm & Hammer. The two companies would merge back together in 1896, though the brands remained independent until Cow Brand was finally discontinued in 1992.

A logical question at the point, since we know that potassium carbonate comes from wood ashes, is where sodium carbonate comes from. In fact it’s a compound that occurs widely in nature. If you’re familiar with the term “soda beds” or “soda lakes”, that’s the stuff. The Wyoming soda beds here in the US are among the most famous sodium carbonate deposits in the world. There, passing pioneers discovered miles-wide landscapes covered with what appeared to be snow drifts…only in summer. It was of course semi-pure sodium carbonate, also known as “natron” or “trona”.

Where did/does the stuff come from? The answer: from water. More specifically, water that has flowed over (or through) naturally occurring sodium deposits, then collected in still pools. When the sodium molecules in the water come into contact with atmospheric carbon dioxide, they react to form sodium carbonate which then settles out of the water as a powder. Neato.

Settlers in the area (notably Mormons) came from hundreds of miles away to collect it, not for baking but to use to make soap. Of course what they harvested was but a drop in the bucket compared to the total deposits the region contained. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat described them in this way in 1898:

[Wyoming has] enough natural soda in their soda lakes to make all the soda biscuits of the world for the next two centuries, and then throw in, for good measure, sufficient soda and soda lye to cleanse all the tribes of earth.

Hey, I said it was descriptive, not politically correct. To this day Wyoming is one of the leading global sources of trona. Some fifteen million tons of it are mined in the US each year, for indeed it is one of the most important commodities on Earth, used not only to make baking soda and detergents but glass (see previous posts on potash).

So pervasive is its use that soda ash production is one of the measures that economists use to monitor the performance of the US economy. And you thought all there was to soda was a little orange box!

41 thoughts on “Saleratus to Baking Soda”

  1. I remember reading the account of Jo March’s disastrous attempts to cook in “Little Women” when I was in the 3rd grade. “Her biscuits were hard and speckled with saleratus”. “Huh? I thought and went and looked it up. There’s nothing like reading to give you an extensive vocabulary, but I was never able to work saleratus into a conversation.

    1. Heck, “saleratus” makes a cracking addition to any conversation. It’s easier to use than floccinaucinihilipilification at any rate.

  2. Interesting–maybe that’s why the most popular brand of baking soda in Canada was always Cow Brand. Well, until it got swallowed/bought/merged with the beefy bicep brand. I miss those little blue boxes.

    1. Church & Dwight were originally separate companies. Dwight made the Cow soda beginning in the mid-19th century, Church set up his factory to make Arm & Hammer somewhat later. The two companies merged in 1896, but brand loyalties being what they are, both names were kept on the shelves for many years.

  3. In the commercial kitchen I work in,the brand of baking soda or baking powder we use most often is Clabber Girl – which makes sense as clabber is a sour milk product. I never put the two together until you took me down this little rabbit hole of food science and history.

    1. Baking soda and baking powder are two different things. I also use Clabber Girl baking powder but I use Arm and Hammer baking soda

  4. Joe, your science is almost always impeccable, so forgive me if I point out a small error. Sodium carbonate is highly soluble in water, so your explanation of how it forms isn’t quite right. The water would have to evaporate to produce sodium carbonate. I suggest the following substitution: “Carbon dioxide was also dissolved in the pools and when the water evaporated, with the sodium ions [not molecules] it precipitated as sodium carbonate. “

    1. Why do that when it’s so much easier to post your comment and give you the credit? Thank you very much for correcting me, Dan. I rely on people who truly know what they’re talking about to keep me honest. Appreciatively, – Joe

  5. Ellen’s comment about reading rings true here. I only just came upon “saleratus” this morning as I was reading an old short story by Bret Harte, “The Iliad of Sandy Bar,” in an anthology of short stories, “Points of View.”
    Your exposition on baking soda was most interesting.

    1. Funny! I got to this site because I was looking up saleratus, because I just read it in ANOTHER Bret Harte story, “Tennessee’s Partner.” Bret must have been fascinated by the word.

  6. I have been reading the Little House on the Prairie series to my girls (6,4 and 2) and came across the word saleratus so I looked it up. Thank you for helping us to learn more about it! I also love that reading brings up new knowledge and vocabulary (even though I have never been very good at it)! Our family is pretty “old fashioned” in the way we do a lot of things and I’m always interested to know how pioneers would have done the things they did without the supplies that are so readily available to us today.

    1. It’s my very great pleasure, Rachel!

      Digging up odd tidbits from history is one of the reasons I love blogging so much. Please get in touch any time you might have a question about the history of baking!

      – Joe

    2. Rachel, that’s exactly why I looked it up today. I couldn’t get “Ma said ‘Oh, now we can have some saleratus and I can make real light rising bread!'” – out of my head. I asked my hubby who grunted that he didn’t know, and I couldn’t let my ignorance last one more day. Also Joe, Natron was used by the Ancient Egyptians to make mummies. I’ve been an Egyptology Freak since 1976, so …

    3. Little House…exactly why I’m here as well! (And no, I’m not reading them to my daughters, nor to my sons of 18 or 21 years, but to myself…I love these books!)

      1. I’m just starting Little House in the Big Woods with my oldest daughter. She’s nuts about it!

        – Joe

  7. I am from Terre Haute, Indiana, home of Clabber Girl (owned by Hulman family, also owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the 500 is run and famous for low workers’ wages), makers of most of the baking powder used in the United States. So how does this work, Joe? Are trainloads of saleratus arriving for processing? Incidentally, I am reading Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” and came across his description of Soda Lake, where he says the Mormons loaded the stuff into wagons and hauled it to Salt Lake City to sell for 25 cents a pound.

    1. Hey Gretchen!

      I know Terre Haute well. I went to Depauw University up in Greencastle and we used to play Rose Hulman in just about everything. I also go to the 500 every year!

      But yes, I think train loads of trona probably come into Terre Haute where they’re processed into baking soda. But I can’t say for certain I honestly don’t know how bicarbonate is processed for sure. That’s my best guess!

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  8. I saw for the first time the word seleratus in the book Abe’s Wife included in the receipt for apple pie. The list given for preparing apple pie included cinnamon,cloves,nutmeg,lard,flour, sugar,salt.saleratus,vinegar, and all the other things for apple pies..
    Puzzled as to what is meant by ‘and all other …….
    Ken Bishop.
    Lerbach.
    Im Harz.
    Germany,
    Europe.

    1. That’s a darn good question, since that seems like a pretty complete list! Maybe pans and oven fuel? I dunno…

      Thanks for the email, Ken!

      – Joe

  9. I came across the term saleratus when reading my grandmother’s cookbook published in the mid 1800’s. Along with the sketchy instructions for various cakes and the mysterious meaning of saleratus I was a bit puzzled as to whether I could re-create these recipes. I am now on my way to modernizing some of them. Thank you.

    1. I’m very pleased to hear that, Paula! Thanks for the note. If you can, please check back in and let me know how th modernizing effort went!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  10. I have an old (1855) cookbook that mentions saleratus as used for family health:… “Dr. Alcott in a recent lecture, says “that this substance is already used in enormous quantities, and its use is every day increasing” The physicians of New Brunswick say that the mothers of that province kill half their children with it. But the mothers of Maine, Massachusetts and New York are bravely coming on…”
    from The Practical Cook-Book: for Plain Cookery, being the result of twenty years experience in that Art. by Mrs. Sylvia Cambell. Cincinnati: Longley Brothers, Publishers, 168 Vine Street, 1855.

  11. I ran across this term ages ago (in the 70’s before puters) and had no idea of what it meant. I believe it was in one of La’ mours books that I read where they gave a list of all the items they were supposed to have in order to join the wagon train. if memory serves they were supposed to have 50 pounds of the stuff so guess they made a lot of biscuits. finally found out what it was in the early 90’s. however there was a mention of taking the “white stuff” from wood ashes and using that to make their “soda” biscuits. only way I can think of doing that is to allow the wood to burn completely out and mix the stuff with water and put a string into it which will allow it to evaporate and climb the string in a purer form much like that in the soda fields during the summer months. we did an experiment like this in grade school with salt and sugar partly to see which would do better and partly to make a form of rock candy. it works!

    1. We’re not through all those books yet at our house, thank goodness. I’m savoring every page of those things!

      – Joe

  12. So then… If a writer from the mid 1800s mentions “soda” and “baking powder”, it is safe to say the writer was not speaking of baking soda?

    1. Hey Glenn!

      I’m not totally sure I understand the question. What I can say is that “saleratus” was probably more common a term than “soda” among bakers. “Baking powder” (a combination of soda and acid, basically a pre-mixed reaction in a jar) was around in those days but not terribly common until the late 1800’s. Does that answer your question?

      – Joe

  13. All of this delightful prose because I found a side note re wagon trains finding all of that white powder in the summertime……….now my addition to this conversation…..Who fell in powder while making biscuits and dusted their hands into mix,then when it baked said O my goodness I must take some with me!”………………..
    Now my contribution, many years ago, having stirred soda in to cup of water for indigestion, then for some reason set it on the kitchen table and went to bed. Next morning,found that darn cat had probably thought ,oh how nice, a tea cup of water for me, then after one sip (that must have been something to see) knocked cup over…The result was a large area of varnish gone and oak bleached white…
    We do learn interesting things….

    1. Who knew baking soda was so versatile? A varnish remover as well you say. But I shall be careful not to leave any sitting out!

      Thanks, Luci!

      – Joe

  14. I was reading a daily account of one of the Mormon Handcart companies in which it said they had stopped at Saleratus Lake and gathered saleratus. What is that?! Of course, went to Google which led me to your site and there found the answer. Leads me to want to know more about the use of this “product”. Thanks for the insights.

    1. Hey Kristin!

      It’s my very great pleasure! Come back and visit again one of these days!

      – Joe

  15. In the Nauvoo Neighbor it gives a list of items necessary for the trek west the following year.
    http://boap.org/LDS/Nauvoo-Neighbor/1845/10-29-1845.pdf

    In the Bill of Particulars there is an abbreviotion “do.”
    For example:
    1 do. Tea.
    5 do. coffee.
    100 do. sugar.
    1 do. cayenne pepper.
    2 do. black pepper
    The measurement “do.” is used many times and I can’t find any source that tells us what a “do.” is. Is it a bulk measurement or a weight measurement?

    1. Wayne, I believe the Nauvoo Neighbor article is using “do” to mean “ditto,” or “same as above.” The list includes “1 lb. [gun]Powder” followed by “4 do Lead,” “1 do Tea,” etc., which means “4 pounds of Lead” (lead shot to go with the gunpowder), “1 pound of Tea,” etc. In one case, the “do” is used twice: “5 lbs dried Peaches” is followed by “20 do do Pumpkin,” meaing “20 pounds of dried Pumpkin.”

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