Sea surface salinity patterns have intensified between the mid-20th century and present day, with saline areas becoming saltier and fresher areas fresher. This change has been linked to a human-induced strengthening of the global hydrological cycle as global mean surface temperatures rose. Here we analyse salinity observations from the round-the-world voyages of HMS Challenger and SMS Gazelle in the 1870s, early in the industrial era, to reconstruct surface salinity changes since that decade. We find that the amplification of the salinity change pattern between the 1870s and the 1950s was at a rate that was 54 ± 10% lower than the post-1950s rate. The acceleration in salinity pattern amplification over almost 150 years implies that the hydrological cycle would have similarly accelerated over this period.