Stupid Question ™
Dec. 23, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Morton Salt’s motto is, “When it rains, it pours.” What does this have to do with salt?
A: Here’s a hint: The original motto was, “Even in rainy weather it flows freely.”
The point is that Morton Salt, unlike raw natural salt, won’t cake up in humid weather. In “When in rains, it pours,” the first “it” refers to the weather and the second “it” refers to the salt.
The idea is supported by a logo featuring a little girl under an umbrella freely spilling salt during a rain shower.
When the Morton Salt Co. was organized in 1910 (a new name and structure for an older firm), table salt was fairly raw stuff. Morton’s innovations were to screen the salt down to a standard grain size and to add 2 percent magnesium carbonate (today, calcium silicate) to the mix to prevent moisture-induced caking. With table salt as smooth and dry as sand, Morton’s now-familiar round package was thus also the first to feature a pouring spout.
Morton introduced this “freeflowing” salt in 1911 with a series of ads in “Good Housekeeping” magazine, featuring the little-girl logo and the motto. (The girl, officially “7-9 years old,” has been on the salt packages since 1914 and has changed her looks five times.)
The logo was designed by an ad company, originally as an alternate suggestion. Under the logo was the suggested motto, “Even in rainy weather it flows freely.” The Morton board found this unwieldy and wanted something as zippy as Ivory’s “Ivory Soap—It Floats.”
“Morton Salt—It Pours” was bounced around until somebody thought of the proverb, “It never rains but it pours.” This was streamlined into the more positive-sounding, “When it rains, it pours.”
We now, of course, take free-flowing salt for granted. The seeming meaninglessness of the motto is, ironically, a testament to the success of Morton’s innovation.
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An update on my Dec. 2 column on the origin of “three sheets to the wind,” in which I said “sheets” are ropes that control a ship’s sails, and that there’s no evidence three sheets were specified for any particular reason:
Reader Dale Collmer notes that sloops have three sheets, controlling two sails.
And reader Rich Miller related a new origin theory involving three-sailed pilot house cutters, which were used to ferry harbor pilots to and from ships. Supposedly, the harbor pilot would often hang out with ship crews and get tipsy. Since his cutter had three sails, and thus at least three sheets, it’s possible the harbor pilot would go home literally three sheets to the wind.
Two interesting ideas about this slang term for drunkenness, though in our sober judgment there’s no linguistic evidence linking them with the phrase.