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Staff Favorites: A Turn of Phrase

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We are often asked which Library of Congress primary source is our favorite. We could never choose just one, but this week Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress highlights an especially intriguing or engaging primary source from the Library’s online collections.

Well, I don’t know if this is my absolute favorite, or even the weirdest, but this item does greatly amuse me.

Salt Mines. Frances Benjamin Johnson, 1893
Salt Mines. Frances Benjamin Johnson, 1893

The 1893 photograph is called “Salt Mines,” by Frances Benjamin Johnston. I like the photo because it reminds me of the phrase “back to the salt mines.” When I found it, I printed out a copy and posted it in my workspace, so that when I come in to work in the morning, I can say ironically to myself: “Well, back to the Salt Mines.”

After the picture hung there a while, it started me thinking, “Where did this common phrase come from anyway?” What was the specific history behind this statement and what was it about working in salt mines that was so dangerous or unpleasant that a whole idiom arose from it?” Various explanations I’ve seen range from hapless Russian prisoners being sent to Siberia to generally unsafe working conditions. Not that any of these conditions apply to me at the Library!

Then there is the science educator in me that is fascinated seeing these men work with and stack the salt. The mineral sodium chloride has a crystalline structure that is perfectly cubic, and looking closely in this photograph you can observe this structure, particularly in the relatively straight lines of the “salt mountains” being stacked behind the workers.

I wonder what teachers and students may be able to discern about the history of mining or the science of minerals by examining the picture very closely. But mostly, I like it because it amuses me when I look at it in my workspace. “Back to the Salt Mines.”

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