A History of Salt & Pepper Shakers December 9, 2015
In 1914, Morton Salt introduced the slogan “When it rains, it pours.” The company wasn’t just being cute; it was boasting about the breakthrough effect of adding magnesium carbonate to salt, which allowed the historically lumpy mineral to flow smoothly from a container, even in damp weather. With this leap, illustrated by a wavy-haired girl hugging an umbrella, Morton encouraged one of the world’s most whimsical objects. After millennia of scooping salt from dishes, civilization was ready for the salt shaker.
The story of how receptacles for salt devolved from “cellars” gorgeously wrought in precious metals to novelties molded in every conceivable form is the tale of how a once elite spice became a staple for the masses. “Salt is born of the purest of parents, the sun and the sea,” the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras noted. The mineral constitutes 2.6 percent of the weight of the earth’s crust and 3.5 percent of its oceans. It makes an excellent preservative that allowed seafarers to enjoy protein on their long excursions. But it took until the Industrial Revolution to extract and distribute salt efficiently, which happened long after Jesus bestowed his highest praise on his disciples by calling them “the salt of the earth.”
Today, we continue to use phrases like “below the salt” to refer to inferior things, a legacy of the days when salt on a high table in a medieval banquet hall was reserved for nobility and those who sat at lower tables were denied access to it. Now salt shakers are found in almost every dining room in the Western world. (The East, of course, has its own salty condiments.) And then there’s pepper. Inspired by the great 18th-century French chefs, the emergence of this spice as a regular companion to salt, combined with a longtime tendency of the tourism industry to market household goods as souvenirs, has meant that salt-and-pepper shakers are available in a mind-bending array of complementary shapes.
Designer have found occasion to re-imagine the pair as poodles, bistro chairs, air hockey game paddles for dinnertime play, the head and neck of Marie Antoinette (they must be separated for the dispensers to be used), houses in an Italian tabletop rural landscape that also includes a Lombardy poplar toothpick holder and “anthropomorphic tomato and lettuce people.” One family became so besotted with the plenitude of shakers that it has collected 40,000 examples and opened two museums, on two continents, as their showcase. The range, the creativity, the relatively inexpensive cost of these goods make them catnip for hoarders, say those who have felt the attraction. But there are downsides. As Gail Anderson, a graphic designer who ultimately weaned herself from the habit, noted on the website Design Observer, “The problem with collecting shakers is that you need the real estate to display them and they require frequent cleaning.”