In ancient times, salt was a precious commodity. According to Marco Polo, cakes of salt displayed a likeness of the Tibetan ruler and were used as money. In ancient Greece, slaves were traded for salt, and more than 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, the Chinese emperor levied the first known tax of any kind on salt.
In the native Japanese religion Shinto, salt is used for ritual purification of locations and people, such as in Sumo wrestling. In Aztec mythology, Huixtocihuatl was a fertility goddess who presided over salt and salt water. Reports from Onondaga, N.Y., in 1654 relate that the Onondaga Indians made salt by boiling brine from salt springs.
Egyptian art from as long ago as 1450 B.C. records the making of salt. More recent examples are drawings of a 15th-century French salt evaporation plant, a 16th-century Persian picture of a Kurdish salt merchant and a 17th-century Italian print offering instructions for distilling salt.
During the Middle Ages, when salt was a valuable commodity, it was kept on the table in elaborate metal or glass dishes as a status symbol. Being granted the favor of sharing the saltcellar of the host was seen as a sign of great respect. The social status of a person was often measured simply by judging the distance at which the guest sat from the master’s saltcellar. In the more recent past, before refrigeration, salt was the main ingredient for preserving food.
Spice mills, including those for pepper, were found in European kitchens as early as the 14th century, but the mortar and pestle used earlier for crushing pepper and salt remained a popular method for centuries after as well.
Modern salt and peppershakers evolved from the English “muffineer” or sugar shaker. In the Victorian era, salt was kept in small individual cellars as part of a typical table setting. Covered or master saltcellars were also used.
Some early saltshakers contained a grinding mechanism to break up large salt chunks, similar to the modern pepper grinders. As salt production was refined, these grinders became obsolete.
The screw-top cap was patented by John Landis Mason in 1858 for use on fruit jars. Around 1871, when salt became more refined, some ceramic shakers were molded with perforated tops.
It’s important for collectors to know that if they see an antique glass shaker with a rough or jagged top above the threaded neck, this is called the “bust-off” and is not a flaw. Some collectors grind these down, but this jagged area is a normal part of the manufacturing process, created when the shakers were taken out of the molds.
Antique Trader Salt and Pepper Shakers Price Guide
By Mark Moran
This colorful and comprehensive reference features more than 1,000 salt and pepper shakers, arranged into two sensible sections: shakers by form and shakers by maker to help you locate details about your favorite condiment container.
Available at shop.collect.com
In the early 20th century, moisture-absorbing agents (magnesium carbonate) were added to salt and it was no longer sold in blocks for food use, but was finely ground. In 1924, Morton became the first company to produce iodized salt for the table to help prevent goiters, recognized as a widespread health problem in the U.S. at that time. Saltcellars finally disappeared as common table objects by the middle of the 20th century.
Rare, unique and decorative salt and peppershakers have become such popular collector’s items over the years that many shaker sets are produced for the sole purpose of being a collectible and are rarely used to hold the condiment. During their retirements, actors Glenn Ford and Bob Hope were avid collectors of vintage salt and peppershakers. Writer and poet Dorothy Parker also had a large collection.
Salt and peppershakers can be found in nearly every conceivable shape and size and are made in a variety of materials including wood, metal, ceramics, glass, and plastics. They are abundant, colorful, fun, span almost every theme, and best of all, they’re often inexpensive. You can generally find a set of whimsical shakers for around $10, so collecting is certainly within the reach of just about anyone. Because salt and peppershakers are easy to find and are inexpensive, some people have amassed collections numbering in the thousands.
Whether you fancy figurals, go-togethers, hangers, kissers, nesters, stackers, western styles or long-boys, you are sure to find something that catches your interest.
There is also a museum solely devoted to these shakers: The Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, the only one of its kind, in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Each year, more than 8,000 people visit it to see the 20,000+ salt and peppershakers featured and some of the strangest pepper mills around.
Photos from the Antique Trader Salt & Pepper Shaker Price Guide.