Collecting Salt Cellars

The other day, I overheard some customers at the shop say, “I don’t know what these are, but they’re so cute! I want them all!” I walked over and told my shoppers that they were looking at our vintage salt cellars. “Salt what?”

When I first started in Vintage, I had heard of salt cellars but I wasn’t aware of the history, or the collectability. In fact, long ago my daughter and I were at an estate sale when we saw miniature rectangular and oval dishes that sparkled like diamonds. I remember wondering, “candle votives? ring holders? tiny flower bud dishes?” I think at the time my daughter was picturing a fancy bed for Barbie’s poodle.

After I did some research on salt cellars, I started seeing them everywhere. One time my husband brought home from the hardware store a set of small metal trays to organize nuts and bolts in the garage. My first thought was, “ooh, magnetic salt cellars. Genius!”

The term “salt cellar” generally encompasses any container that holds salt, including salt pigs, salt dips and interestingly, in British English, salt shakers are called a salt cellars. I’ve found that it’s the open salt dishes (or “salts,” as some collectors call them) that are sought after and adored by collectors.

Nomenclature aside, the history of the salt cellar is fairly straightforward. Once upon a time, salt was considered to be a lavish expense and only affordable to the upper classes. During meal times, it was kept in a “standing salt” at the head of the table. Where one was seated in proximity to the salt was directly related to one’s social status. By the 19th century, it became more common to find a small dish of milled salt at the top each place setting at the table. These open salts were made from a variety of materials including silver, porcelain, and even ivory. Most, however, were made from pressed glass, as this was the most inexpensive form of production at the time. In 1835, a cost-prohibitive salt tax was repealed in England, followed by the lifting of a high glass tax. These events led to a mass-production of pressed glass salt cellars in a variety of shapes, sizes and patterns. As the use of table salt increased, the industry looked for more convenient ways to dispense it. The shaker was introduced, but the salt clumping up inside was a problem. In 1911, non-caking agents were added to table salt, making it free-flowing even in damp weather. “When it rains, it pours.” Are you having a light bulb moment like I did?

Since the ubiquitous salt shaker has replaced the open salt cellar for use at everyday meals, open salts have become a fun item to collect. There are books, clubs, websites, even conventions devoted to the collections of salt cellars. Prices can range from affordable to very pricey, not unlike most vintage collectibles and antiques, but much easier to display and store!

What I love most about these little pretties, is that they are as functional as they are beautiful. David over at GoodThingsByDavid prefers low-profile open cellars for both salt and pepper instead of tall, ungainly shakers when having guests at the table. With more people digging into sustainable and local sourcing, small batch artisanal salts and spices are finding their way back into kitchens. What better way to display and serve them than in unique, vintage open salt cellars?  In fact, we have a variety of salt cellars in the shop to start (or add to) your own Salt Cellar collection!

So, what do you collect?

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