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From Salt to Stipends: The History of the Salary

How did you get your salary last month? How about 10 years ago? How did you receive your payment for your very first job? Chances are you have a different answer for each question! How workers have earned a salary for their efforts has varied wildly throughout the ages, so we thought we’d take a quick look at the history of this dynamic but essential process.

Worth your salt

Rather than receiving a salary in currency, the earliest historical records show workers were compensated with the necessities for living, primarily food and shelter. A clay tablet dated roughly 3100 B.C. indicates daily beer rations were provided for workers in Mesopotamia.

This sort of barter system was still going around 50 B.C., when Roman soldiers were paid in salt, a highly valued commodity at the time. In fact, the word “salary” comes from the Latin word “salarium,” which means “salt money.” Have you heard the saying about being “worth your salt”? Now you know where it came from!


Commerce begins modernizing salaries

Fast-forward about 1,500 years to the beginning of the Commercial Revolution and the emergence of economies based on trade. Salaries began to look more like what we’d recognize today, with workers being paid for time periods worked or by pieces produced.

Around this period, we also have the beginning of the modern banking system. All those shillings need to go somewhere, right? There are always exceptions, but from about the 16th century forward, currency becomes king and barter-type payments for labor become the exception. As large organizations like the East India Companies start to emerge, managers also begin to be compensated with shares of company profits.

Industrial-style improvements

As we moved into the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, modern business corporations became a fixture of the professional landscape. With the emergence of this professional class, calculating their output was no longer as easy as recording hours or counting the number of widgets produced. The local currency remained the compensation of choice, but many workers began receiving a fixed salary at regular intervals for the first time in history.

Paychecks, salaries and perks

In the modern age, the salary might include commissions and shares in earnings. In addition, benefits and perquisites (you know them as “perks”) became another way for employers to compensate their employees for their performance. Benefits like health care, paid leave and retirement were added by employers on top of salaries paid to workers. While perks are great, another often overlooked aspect of the employee experience are developments like user-friendly HR technology, which lets employees access their payroll data and employee benefits via smartphone. These advances help increase employee engagement for the organization, while also improving the work experience for the staff member who now has greater control over aspects of their compensation — in some cases, even gaining full visibility into the process, including verification their next paycheck will be correct before it’s cut.

Moving from paper paychecks to approving payroll before its processed.

What’s next?

What do you think salaries will look like in the future? Jetpack credits and bitcoin deposits? Who knows! Whatever comes, you can count on Paycom to help ensure your employees get paid without a hitch — all while involving them to help improve data accuracy and lower employer risk! To learn more about how Paycom can streamline your payroll, schedule a demo today.


DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.