What do rockets, raccoons, tumbling clowns and fedoras have in common? They are all shapes of salt and pepper shakers that are featured in the current “Artifact of the Month” exhibit at the Western Illinois Museum.
Large and small, wooden, plastic and ceramic, adorable and funny, the salt and pepper shakers on display come from the museum’s extensive collection of over 300 shakers. Now, for the month of November, the public will have the unique opportunity to see a number of these fascinating examples of culinary condiment history displayed together.
Used since antiquity, salt and pepper have played an important part in history. Salt and pepper and other spices were traded and shipped all over the ancient world and were considered precious commodities. In particular, salt has been valued as not only a seasoning, but also as a critically significant food preservative. Before canning and refrigeration, salting was the only way to preserve meat over the long winter season.
Although salt and pepper have been in use for a long time, salt and pepper shakers are a relatively modern invention.
It was not until the 20th century, that salt and pepper shakers became widely used. Before that time, neither pepper nor salt was ground. Pepper came in peppercorn form and was stored in a pepper mill; pepper had to be ground by hand to serve.
From ancient times until around the 1900s, salt was used as coarse crystals; it was not ground and refined as we are accustomed today.
Coarse salt was kept on the dining table in an open dish called a salt cellar and diners served themselves salt with a tiny spoon called the salt spoon. Salt would clump together in humid weather and had to be broken up with the spoon before serving.
During Victorian times, (the 1880s-1890s) salt mills were used that were like pepper grinders, chopping the salt crystals into small pieces.
In 1911, the Morton Salt Company began adding anti-caking/moisture-absorbing agents to salt (at first, magnesium carbonate, now calcium silicate), which made it easy to pour, even in damp weather. This free-flowing salt was sold in a round package with a patented spout from which the consumer could pour out the salt. Because of the special Morton anti-caking agent, the salt could pour out of the package even when it was damp or humid. Thus, the famous Morton advertising slogan, “When it rains, it pours” makes sense.
After 1911, with salt now ground and free-flowing, it was no longer absolutely necessary to serve salt in a salt cellar, salt could be used in a shaker. Serving salt in shakers really became popular in the 1940s, when cheap ceramics began to be produced worldwide. Salt and pepper shakers were the ideal sized decorative accessory for every housewife’s kitchen. Now, we take salt and pepper shakers for granted, but it was not too long ago that they were a brand-new addition to the dining table.
Vintage salt and pepper shakers have now become popular collectibles. All over the world people collect salt and pepper shakers. One of the most attractive aspects to collecting salt and pepper shakers is that it is possible to create a collection for very little cash.
Made in ceramic, wood, metal, plastic, and glass, salt and pepper shakers can be found at most thrift shops, flea markets and yard sales. People collect them for the fun of it or focus on special aspects. Some collect a certain material, such as only ceramic or only wood. Some collect a particular period, such as focusing on the 1950s; others collect only animal shakers or shakers in the form of people. Salt and pepper shaker collectors break down shakers into categories and types.
Categories of salt and pepper shakers
Advertising: popular after WWII, all sorts of products reproduced as shakers
Figural: little people of all nationalities and types
Animal: natural and fanciful
Novelty: cartoon, figures from stories, well-known characters
Period: era specific, i.e., Mid Century, Roaring 20's, etc.
Souvenir: from a tourist spot
Types of shakers
The Go-Togethers/Go-Withs or Tag Alongs: shakers that are a pair with a common theme
The Hangers: sets that have a base and they hang from it
The Huggers or Kissers: the shakers are hugging/kissing each other
The Nesters: one shaker fits into an indentation in the other
The Stackers: one shaker stacks on top of the other
A word to the wise if starting a salt and pepper shaker collection: do not keep salt or pepper in your shakers. Salt is corrosive and can eventually damage the shaker and pepper absorbs moisture and can become a caked on mess.
The salt and pepper shakers will be on display November 2 through November 30, 2010.
From an essay by Heather Munro
The Artifact of the Month book is a compilation of informative essays written by Heather Munro to highlight the diverse collection of the Western Illinois Museum. Each artifact tells an engaging story and provides a direct connection to the past. The Artifact of the Month series creates an opportunity to delve into our regional history and learn what is unique about West Central Illinois.
Become a member or renew your memebership and this 24-page, fully color illustrated book will be our thank you to you. Proceeds will benefit the Western Illinois Museum's collection, exhibition and educational programs.
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