There are utilitarian objects in our lives that we often use without thought. Take, for instance, salt and pepper shakers. A table would be naked without them, but why? Out of all the spices in the world, how did Americans end up with salt and pepper on every table? When did shakers become the preferred receptacle? How did they become the collectible that they are today? (These are the sorts of questions that keep me up at night). Well, now that I’ve got the gears in your brain going, let’s dive into the history of salt and pepper shakers. Don’t worry, there will be lots of pictures!
Salt has almost always been a part of Western cooking but was used exclusively in the kitchen by chefs until the 17th century. After that, it was kept on the table in salt cellars, small dishes that you would scoop salt out of with a very cute tiny spoon. This was before the days of gluten-free this and no preservatives that, so the only real way to customize your meal was to salt it to your taste.
Pepper though? No one is quite sure how it became salt’s ever faithful companion, but the best anecdote I could find is that France’s King Louis XIV didn’t like “spicy” food and limited the use of spices to salt and pepper. Then, supposedly, this became the fashion and, to this day, every restaurant keeps the two together. I’m not really sure if this is the 100% factual story of how pepper ended up dominating Western cuisine, but I like the idea that an 18th century French King’s toddler palate changed the landscape of food forever. Seems plausible.
It wasn’t until the 1920s when the Morton Salt Company came up with a way to stop salt from clumping, that it became the shakeable spice we’re used to today. After the Great Depression, ceramics companies began producing tons of salt and pepper shakers because they were cheap to make, could be sold at a low price, and every household needed a set. Companies started making varied designs to capture the interests of consumers and, as with anything that produces a variety of options, they became collectibles. By the 1940s, collectible salt and pepper shakers were the choice souvenir people would bring home with them from vacations. Some were specifically made for locals, like this set my Grandparents brought back with them from Australia for my Great-Grandma, a collector:
Or, sometimes, they would just have stickers for a specific location added after a production like this bizarre set of a child trying to use a chamber pot and finding a bee in his way:
Not quite sure what that has to do with the Seneca Indian Reservation, but, hey, someone bought them and I spent a ridiculous amount of money to buy them from a vintage reseller.
Not all vintage salt pepper shakers are expensive, which makes them a fun thing to collect. You are able to get most sets for $10 or under. They also don’t take up a huge amount of space so you can collect a lot without seeming cluttered. Here is a picture of my personal collection (that I have to admit has grown considerably since I began working at the Brass Armadillo):
There are so many different types of collectible salt and pepper shakers that it seems as if a collection could never be complete. I have been collecting for years and still routinely run across a set I’ve never seen before. With so many to choose from, how does someone avoid buying every set that they see? Well, there are some sets that are definitely more desirable than others. Especially popular are anthropomorphic sets which give human characteristics to either inanimate objects or animals. Some of my favorites fit into this category. I have a dapper skunk couple, owl doctors, martini-loving foxes, a delightful little bookworm and so on and so on.
One of the most desirable anthropomorphic sets is this, Lefton’s Miss Priss:
This set routinely sells for between $30 and $40! The most I have spent on a set of shakers is around $50. What do $50 sets of collectible salt and pepper shakers look like? I’ll show you mine (all of which I found in locked cases at the Des Moines Brass Armadillo). The first pricey set I bought were these devil ladies: .
This set is pretty rare. I just checked and see that there are none listed on Ebay or Etsy right now. Pin-up stuff is always highly collectible and so is anything “spooky” or Halloween related or creepy, like these guys:
The really expensive ones of these say “I’m Poison” instead of “I’m Salt” and “I’m Pepper.”
My absolute favorite set, though, is part of the explosion of John F. Kennedy merchandise after his assassination. Most presidential sets are pretty subdued, but this one, oh man:
Yeah, that’s a little JFK as a shaker sitting on a rocking chair, that is also a shaker. I had been looking for these for years! They were my Holy Grail of collecting so now I have to find a new one!
It’s kind of impossible to write a completely thorough blog on collectible salt and pepper shakers. There will always be something left out because each day is an opportunity to find something you’ve never seen before. I’ll leave you with a gallery of some of the standout vintage salt and pepper shaker sets in the Des Moines store right now. Maybe the collecting bug will bite you too!