Conveying, boiling, packing – the path from brine to salt required several tightly organised work steps in which various professional groups were involved day and night. In addition, there were auxiliary workers and craftsmen such as carpenters, pan smiths and basket weavers who supplied the saltworks with tools. Thus the salt trade provided a livelihood for many Hallensians. Yet it was always a back-breaking job, usually dirty and sometimes dangerous. Technical innovations after 1700 brought relief, but increasingly cost jobs.

In 1682, the infection took over here in Halle, so that fifty, sixty or more died every day.

Johann Dietz (1665–1738)Apprentice of the barber trade in Halle

Hard times

The Thalsaline was slow to recover from the consequences of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). As late as 1680 it was still producing just half as much salt as before the war. When the plague finally ravaged Halle for the last time around 1682, salt workers were among its victims. The pans remained cold for most of the year, and at last more than 20 boiling huts were without salt workers and servants. Three years later, however, things were looking up again.

Today it is assumed that Halle lost about half of its population during the last plague wave. After that, only about 6,000 people lived in the city. Later immigration caused the population figures to rise again.

Working areas of the Thalsaline

The comic-like image shows the salt extraction process in Halle around 1670 and the people involved at a glance using numbered stations – from lifting the brine to loading the salt. Copperplate engraving in: Friedrich Hondorff: Das Saltz=Werk zu Halle in Sachsen befindlich […], Halle 1670. Halle, Franckesche Stiftungen: BFSt: S/A:1398

The well workers

The well workers (»Bornknechte«) – divided into »Haspeler«, »Radtreter«, »Störtzer«, »Zäpffer« and »Träger« – were at the beginning of salt production. Haspeler and Radtreter laboriously pulled the brine out of the wells by means of muscle-powered hoists, which was immediately collected by the Störtzer and Zäpffer in large troughs and filled into tubs for transport to the boiling huts.

In 1731, a horse-driven hoist (»Pferdegöpel«) at the German Well replaced the old hoisting technology and thus made the work easier, but at the same time it made 20 well workers unemployed.

The hardest and most dangerous work of all the well workers was done by the brine carriers. Two of them carried the brine in heavy barrows over slippery wooden walkways from the wells to the salt huts. There they poured the brine into barrels and walked back to the well, where the next tub was already waiting for them.

In order to prevent one-sided physical strain, the well workers worked alternately in large and small shifts and relieved each other in a fixed rhythm. The brine carriers also had to work in a precise order when carrying and detaching the brine. Nevertheless, the risk of work accidents with serious injuries and lifelong health damage was considerable.

As a wage, the well workers received a »Gerente« for life, i.e. a certain amount of brine, which was also boiled. From the proceeds they could not only earn their living, but also pay servants to do the work for them in case of old age or illness. By the beginning of the 16th century at the latest, the well workers were organised into their own brotherhood.

The salt boilers

The most technically experienced workers in the salt works were the salt boilers, who were also known as »Salzwirker«. They were employed for a limited period of time by their Pfänner, which was extended if necessary. They performed their strenuous work inside the boiling huts at the pans, surrounded by heat, brine fumes and acrid smoke. They were often assisted by their wives and children, but also by hired servants.

The daily work routine followed strict rules, and an oath had to be sworn to uphold them. Violations threatened expulsion from the saltworks or worse. Corporal punishment and life sentences were carried out in particular if salt workers wasted, embezzled or used brine for purposes other than boiling – with the exception of extinguishing fires and boiling pickled eggs. They were also forbidden to sell spilled salt.

I vow and swear to my most gracious Lord of Magdeburg and his descendants and to the City Council of Halle, as well as to my squire and lord, whose brine and fire I diligently attend to for his benefit, that I will not boil outside the order and will at all times obediently observe this order.

From the Oath of the Salt Boilers

The Pfänners paid their boiling masters a fixed weekly wage even in the case of illness or when there was no boiling and the pans remained cold. Since the boiling masters were also responsible for selling the salt, they were allowed to demand a precisely defined tip from the trader for each piece of salt. From this income, the master paid not only his assistants, but also tools, boiling ingredients and minor repairs. He kept the rest for himself.

The salt boilers were by no means only poor wage labourers, even if there were differences between simple workers and higher-ranking masters. Some even had their own house and land and were able to save a modest fortune. To support poorer colleagues, all casters paid into a common fund.

In the 18th century, more and more boiling huts were demolished in the valley, which deprived many boiling masters and servants of their jobs. Sometimes they found employment as lower-paid wage labourers at the royal salt works, but not infrequently they had to look for other work.

The salt workers – together with the loading workers – formed a brotherhood called the »Salzwirkerbrüderschaft im Thale zu Halle«, which still exists today. In the 18th century, the name »Halloren« became established for their members. The Halloren developed their own traditions and customs, such as Whitsun beer, flag-waving and fishermen’s jousting, which are still practised today.

The Halloren are generally characterised by a well-built body, are of slender, tall stature; they form a very well-shaped, beautiful, also strong breed of people, as can also be seen in the boiling huts, where they are only slightly clothed because of the heat. They have very regular facial features, a clear forehead and beautiful eyes. Their whole appearance is reminiscent of the strong mountain people of Tyrol and Switzerland [...].

Christian Keferstein (1784–1866)Über die Halloren, 1843, S. 89 f.

The Halloren's characteristic festive dress developed in the 17th and 18th centuries in line with bourgeois urban dress customs. It is still worn today on special occasions. It consists of a tricorn hat as headgear, a skirt decorated with fur in red or blue, a flowered waistcoat with 18 silver ball buttons, each with its own meaning, black velvet knee breeches with long ribbons, white or blue stockings and black loafers with silver buckles.

Rights and obligations of the Halloren

The salt boilers or Halloren enjoyed some special rights that were guaranteed to them in the Thal orders. These included fishing and birdcatching, which ensured their livelihood on days without salt production, and the manufacturing of smoked sausage and pickled eggs. From the 17th century onwards, they were also employed as corpse bearers for a fee.

In addition to these rights, the salt boilers also had duties: In the event of war, for example, they had to defend a part of the city wall. During floods, they had to seal the brine wells and bring the salt to safety. After a flood disaster, it was part of their job to drain the riverbed. And if a fire broke out in the salt works or the town, the workers had to interrupt their work and help extinguish the fire with other salt workers at the site of the disaster. The brine proved to be an ideal means of doing this.

The fire hazard on the Thalsaline was considerable not only because of the open fires in the boiling huts. Large quantities of ash also accumulated daily, which had to be disposed of with the greatest care and caution. Anyone who left a fire unattended or spilled embers on the paths had to expect severe penalties.

Träger, Läder, Stöpper

When the salt was dry and ready for sale, carrier (Träger) carried it in wicker baskets from the boiling hut to the loading place, where the carters were already waiting. They wore a bag-like bonnet to protect their heads. Before the carrier handed the salt over to the packaging staff (Läder and Stöpper), they used a brushwood broom to remove the soot particles that had settled on it during the drying process in the boiling hut.

The loaders and their servants loaded the carts and wagons of the traders, saving as much space as possible. To do this, the solid pieces of salt were broken into smaller chunks with the help of a hoe and then piled up. Large, four-wheeled carts for long transports held about 60 whole pieces of salt, and the number of horses harnessed varied depending on the quantity loaded.

The »Stöppers« were responsible for securing the load of salt for transport. To ensure that no salt was lost on the way, the carts and wagons were lined with canvas and sealed with straw. To protect the cargo from the wind and rain, the Stöppers stretched a large tarpaulin over it, which they supported with willow rods and wrapped with rope.

Like the salt workers, the carriers and the packaging staff belonged to the salt workers' fraternity and also received a monetary wage. Similar to the well workers, widows, surviving dependents and the sick were supported from a community fund.

Day labourers, who were subordinate to the sub well masters, ensured safety and cleanliness on the salt works premises. The »Stegschäufler« cleaned the footbridges so that the brine carriers with their heavy tubs could reach the boiling huts safely – especially at night, when they also carried lanterns.

Spilled brine as well as rain and melt water ran off into the Saale river via a system of wooden drainage channels, the so-called »Spulen« or gutters. They prevented puddles of water on the low-lying terrain, which would have contaminated the wells. The »Spulzieher« were responsible for clearing these gutters of dirt and mud so that the water could drain away quickly at all times.

The »Flößmeister« took whatever rubble and refuse accumulated on the Thalsaline to the Saale on a wheelbarrow. There he loaded the waste onto a timbered raft to dispose of it at a suitable place downstream. The raft master was the only one of the day labourers responsible for cleaning work who also received a certain amount of brine.

Pan smiths, basket makers and carpenters

Among the indispensable sidelines of the Thalsaline were the pan smiths, who were paid by the Pfänners. They made the large boiling pans from hammered sheet iron using rivets. A pan lasted about 20 full boiling weeks, after which a new one was needed. A lower quality »cross pan« could still be made from two used pans.

The freshly boiled salt was filled into special wicker baskets in which it could dry and be stored until it was sold. The baskets could be used several times, but had to be cleaned beforehand by basket washers in the Saale river. If new ones were needed, the Pfänner commissioned and paid a basket maker who had to make the baskets exactly to measure.

In former times, down to this century, the houses were very badly built, and every 30 to 40 years the owner felt obliged to have his own rebuilt.

Johann Christian Förster (1735–1798)Beschreibung und Geschichte des Hallischen Salzwerks, 1793, S. 29

The wooden salt huts were constantly exposed to smoke, soot and brine vapours and therefore quickly became dilapidated. They had to be regularly repaired by carpenters or, in the worst case, torn down and completely rebuilt. An official Thal carpenter was appointed and sworn to maintain the well houses and other communal buildings.

Change in the working world

Technical innovations and changes in work processes around and after 1700 permanently changed everyday life at the Thalsaline. They created the basis for early industrial salt production. This development was driven primarily by Prussian saltworks officials.

With the start of electoral salt production at the Thalsaline, around a quarter of the salt workers changed employer. The salt workers, who were members of the prince electorate, now became electoral boiling personnel, who were no longer subject to the Thal Court.

In 1701, the staff of the royal boiling smelters included 23 permanently employed, regularly paid persons: one factor, one upper salt boiling master, 16 simple salt boilers, two salt counters and three ladle smiths. The auxiliary personnel, however, who were always needed, were not permanently employed. Craftsmen such as bricklayers, blacksmiths, coopers, chimney sweeps, as well as coal drivers, messengers, salt packers and day laborers for stamping the salt barrels were paid according to the effort involved.

Modifications to the boiling houses and conveyor systems made the work easier and increased the salt yield, but also meant that fewer and fewer workers were needed. In particular, brine extraction with muscle power was gradually taken over by machines, and the transport of brine via pipes made brine carriers redundant.

Everyone's work at the Thalsaline depended on the amount of salt produced and the technology used. Political interventions, sales reductions and rationalisation always endangered jobs. Changes in the customary order and privileges were therefore mostly rejected by the salt workers.

Nevertheless, in the early 19th century, salt was no longer produced in many small boiling huts, even at the Pfännerschaft, but in two large boiling houses. And the brine also no longer came out of the wells by human hand, but by means of a horse-drawn pot.

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