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!