Most people are familiar with the “Morton”s Salt girl“. With her bright yellow dress, oversized umbrella, and leaking container of table salt, she’s an iconic figure in American grocery stores. But who is the Morton’s girl, and where did she come from?
The Morton’s story begins in the 1880s, when a man named Joy Morton invested in a Chicago-based salt company. Salt was big business in those days, largely fueled by the demand of the explorers and pioneers who were settling the American West. In fact, while salt sells for just a few dollars a pound at most grocery stores these days, it wasn’t always so easy to come by back then. Salt is a critical component of any diet and throughout history has been critical to certain types of food preservation. Perhaps not surprisingly from that, evidence of early human settlements are often found near sources of salt. Struggles over salt have led to war in many cases – in fact, it was the subject of skirmishes between the British and the colonists during the American Revolution. One factor that persuaded Thomas Jefferson to launch the Lewis and Clark expedition was the rumor that a great salt mountain could be found near the Missouri River.
Given the importance of salt, it’s no surprise that Joy Morton’s little company thrived along with the growing country. As the business grew, he bought out his partners. By 1910, he owned a large enough stake to re-brand it in his name – the Morton Salt Company.
At about this time, Morton’s company was also trying to solve a persistent problem. Salt is “hygroscopic”, a physical property that causes it to absorb water from the air around it. When water is absorbed, the salt tends to clump – an inconvenient property for bakers and diners. If you try to put the salt from those days in a shaker and sprinkle it over your French fries, you wouldn’t have much success.
Morton and his team solved this problem in 1911 by adding an anti-caking agent, magnesium carbonate, to their product. They also put the salt in a cylindrical package that helped keep water out. The result was a free-flowing salt that wouldn’t frustrate customers. Morton was pleased with his innovation, but still he faced another issue. Now that his salt came in a new and improved form, he needed to spread this information to his customers. How could he get the word out to customers that Morton salt was the brand for them?
Morton hired advertising agency N.W. Ayer and Company to put together a marketing campaign that would promote the anti-caking properties of his salt. The ad team came up with a long list of marketing plans. They pitched their most promising concepts to the salt company’s executives, but it was Morton’s son who saw genius in one of the throwaway ideas – a little umbrella-wielding girl, accidentally pouring salt in the rain.
The illustration epitomized wholesomeness and innocence. It also demonstrated the value of Morton salt – it will pour easily, even if you’re standing in a rainstorm. The company paraphrased an old adage for the accompanying catchphrase: “When it rains it pours.” The ad debuted in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1914.
In the years since, Morton’s little girl hasn’t aged more than a few years, but she has made some changes to keep up with the times. The first makeover came in 1921, when her hairdresser changed her blonde mop to straight, dark hair. In 1933 – as Shirley Temple’s career as a child actress took off – she co-opted the child star’s trademark curls.
Today, the Morton Salt Company adorns its packages with the sixth version of the umbrella girl – the one with the yellow dress and a daydreaming gaze that evokes the spirit of 1968, the year she debuted. Despite frequent questioning from fans and customers, Morton Salt Company maintains that she is simply the creation of an ad-maker’s imagination – there is no real girl behind the iconic image.
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- In Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper, Judas Iscariot is depicted knocking over a jar of salt. Spilled salt was considered a bad omen. Of course, Judas is said to have left the group during the meal to betray Jesus.
- The Morton Salt Company “umbrella girl” is between the ages of 7 and 9. She has never had a name. After the first version was unveiled in 1914, new umbrella girls were introduced in 1921, 1933, 1941, 1956, and 1968.
- Although magnesium carbonate was the original anti-caking agent used by Morton Salt Company, it was eventually changed to calcium silicate. When taken in large doses, magnesium carbonate is a laxative.
- The Morton’s Salt girl made an appearance during the Super Bowl in 2005 in a commercial for MasterCard. At a dinner party with such famous characters as Mr. Peanut and Chef Boyardee, she elicited the Pillsbury Doughboy’s famous laugh by poking him in the belly.
- If you’ve peeked inside a restaurant salt shaker, you might be familiar with other strategies to prevent salt from clumping. Many establishments put grains of rice in their salt. Since rice absorbs water, it helps remove moisture from the salt and serves as an anti-caking measure.
- Another common salt additive is iodine. Salt producers often add trace amounts of the substance to salt – it makes up just a few thousandths of a percent of the salt in your cupboard. Still, this is enough to ward off iodine deficiency, which is a serious problem around the world. People who don’t consume enough iodine can develop goiters and other health problems. Children with iodine deficiency often have significant development problems.
- Salt was difficult to harvest before the Industrial Revolution, making it a scarce resource that often became the source of conflict. However, today it is so abundant that the supply is considered limitless for practical purposes. There is so much salt in Earth’s oceans that it could be used to build five life-size topographic maps of Europe.
[Salt Image via Shutterstock]
Expand for References
- Shirley Temple IMDB page
- Lewis and Clark
- Morton Salt: “Morton’s History”
- Morton Salt: “History of the Umbrella Girl”
- Indiana Public Media
- NEWTON Ask a Scientist
- Real Food Traveler: “Salt and Trees: The Surprising History of Morton Salt”
- How Stuff Works: “How Salt Works”
- The Salt Institute
- NIH: “Health Consequences of Iodine Deficiency”
- SaltWorkd: “History of Salt”
- Time: “A Brief History of Salt”
- Morton Salt: “Salt Through the Ages”
- American National Biography Online: “Joy Morton”