Salt Cellars

by Rebecca Bryson
Volume 20 No. 7 - March 1994


Probably due to its scarcity - high cost in ancient times, the earliest recorded salts date back to pre-Christianity 1st Century AD. The high regard held for salt was a direct result of many traditions and even superstitions surrounding it. It was considered bad luck to spill salt, a curious superstition we continue even today, and, in fact, an overturned salt dish is shown in front of Judas in da Vinci's famed "The Last Supper" painting. Because salt was revered and considered unique, the earliest salts were usually created with great care - made of silver, gold, carved wood, etc. King Edward III reportedly owned more than five hundred trencher salts in 1329, mostly silver. Charles I records one of his salts in his personal diary in 1625, made of gold and studded with precious gems, weighing more than 150 ounces.

The "server" generally dates back as early as the first recorded use of salt as a flavoring agent. As salt became more readily available and the price more realistic, open salts were produced in more massive quantities for the general public.

Until the Civil War, the standing salt or master salt was placed in the center of the hosts table and much importance was attached to be placed "above" or "below" the salt. Many Tudor examples were of architectural design and of very lavish workmanship. Al the end of the sixteenth century the smaller bell salt was introduced, followed in Jacobean times by the cylindrical salt with a steeple cover. This gave way to the capstan or spool salt, the last type of the great salts. Small salts were also provided beside guest's trenchers, and these were the originals for the eighteenth-century small salts, usually of round or octagonal oblong form, with a shallow well, and molded base. Circular salts on three or four cast feet or on a spreading molded foot were usual during the mid-eighteenth century, until about 1770 when round and oval pieced salts with blue glass liners became fashionable. Boat shapes came in about 1780. During the early nineteenth century, a wide variety of shapes were favored, including shells and boat shapes supported by marine figures as well as simpler styles harking back to mid-eighteenth century originals.

Before table salt was successfully treated or mixed with moisture absorbing agents in the early l900s, it tended to lump and harden inside salt shakers. A few early salt shakers had "agitators" attached to the lids or laying loose inside to disperse the lump before each use. Many early patents were issued to inventors claiming to have solved the lumping problem with varying moisture absorbing material inside the shaker or lid, with unique airtight tops, or with other unusual features like coils. The open salt remained the most realistic, albeit less convenient, method of serving freshly ground salt. After the lumping problem was solved, the salt shaker became a permanent table fixture, replaced only occasionally on the more elegant table set in a nostalgic "old world" atmosphere.

Open salts have been called many different names, including salt dips, salt cellars, salters, trencher salts, celery dips, and just plain "salts." The term open salt is the most popular colloquial name used today, helping differentiate between the equally popular and highly collectable salt shakers.

There are very few pattern glass salts in color because the popular period of open salt production was phasing out as colored tableware was becoming more popular. A number of pattern glass salts are available in color, but these generally tend to be the table size (master). Only a fraction of the patterns made after 1905 had a salt dip made to match, as glass companies were cutting mold production costs by limiting the number of table items in each design. Colored tableware was popular after 1890, making its production peak about 1905-10. Occasionally a pattern glass salt can be found in color in a pattern that is not generally known in color. These were probably colored sets made up from existing salt molds and not sold as part of a line of colored tableware.


The research on silver and "plate" is a specialized field all its own and would take up too much time to go into at this time. Suffice it to say that salts as well as other tableware could he found in sterling, plate, triple-plated and quadruple plated, as well as EPNS. Hallmarks are yet another study that I won't go into at this time.


The term "china" can be interpreted two different ways. literally it is a term reserved for high-quality porcelain. Colloquially it is ANY porcelain or high-glaze ceramic Ware. Thousands of open salts were produced in the 1800s early l900s in china and porcelain. The overwhelming majority were imported from 1890 to 1920, mostly from Europe or Japan. In 1891 government import regulations required that all imports be clearly marked with the country of origin. Some of these were marked in English, clearly designed for the American market. Others may be found in foreign languages. Exact dates on these china salts is not always possible. A few hand painted examples were dated by the artist, usually the case on "home-decorated" European "blank." Sometimes it is difficult to determine exactly what material a particular salt is made from. It is a fine line indeed which separates the categories of china, porcelain, bisque, clay pottery, and other earthenwares.


Clear glass salts can be found in many varieties. Some are pressed glass, while others can be pressed and cut. There are also those that are cut glass. In the research that I have done, I have found that the salts that are less ornate and usually pressed glass are the oldest ones, although there was a "Lacey Period" in which they were extremely ornate. The attraction to collecting salts is that they come in so many varieties, shapes and colors, as well as price ranges. It is usually a challenge to find the more unique ones and especially those in colors. Right now, I am trying to stick to the ones that are scarce or hard to find.

Editor's comments: This article was sent to N&V by Esther Mitchell. It was the last program presented by the late Rebecca Bryson for the Arkansas Glasshoppers Club. NDGA appreciates the opportunity to pass this interesting information to members.