The NSS Bulletin - ISSN 1090-6924
Volume 53 Number 2: 89-97 - December 1991

A publication of the National Speleological Society

Saltpeter Beds: A Review of Nitrate Production in Compost Heaps
Warren C. Lewis, MD


Saltpeter beds were developed in Europe from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries to make saltpeter, the chief ingredient of gunpowder. To increase the supply of niter through five centuries of warfare, powder makers turned to old agricultural techniques. Especially treated compost heaps were developed to augment the supply of nitrates from natural sources. The techniques apparently originated in the Far East and spread westward. Artificial beds were first recorded by European writers in the fifteenth century. As the practice spread over Europe the industry took a variety of forms in different localities. Some, for example, used pits, others beds and some made walls of the mixtures. In England in the sixteenth century, an elaborate composting plan was put into practice. This process was worked out in detail according to a German formula and apparently could be counted on to give good results. It functioned so well that it made England independent of foreign suppliers. The artificial beds were much used in France during the Napoleonic Wars. The use of the gardens recurred in the mid-nineteenth century in America. As the War of Secession progressed, the Confederacy could no longer depend on the supply of natural saltpeter. Artificial beds were established to help supply the wartime demand. Many Southern cities became involved in furnishing supplies for these beds. The niter piles were well underway at the cessation of hostilities. The primary free-living nitrate bacteria are reviewed.

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