The next time you knock over a salt shaker and throw a pinch of the spilled grains over your left shoulder to ward off bad luck, bear in mind that at one time they would have formed part of someone’s wages.
From This Story
It’s amazing the things you learn when you least expect it. I’m getting an in-depth lecture about the world of salt, salt and pepper shakers, and salt cellars from Andrea Ludden, her son, Alex, and her daughter, Andrea, at their Museum of Salt and Pepper Shakers in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And jolly interesting it is.
Far from being just a wacky obsession by a Belgian lady with a fetish for salt shakers, Andrea Ludden’s collection of over 40,000 pairs (half in the family museum in Gatlinburg and half in its new museum in Guadalest, in eastern Spain), started completely by chance, when Andrea bought a pepper mill at a garage sale in the mid-1980s.
It didn’t work, so she bought a couple more. “I used to stand them on the window ledge of my kitchen, and neighbors thought I was building a collection. Nothing could have been further from my mind!” They started bringing her new ones, and eventually, she says, “I had about 14,000 on shelves all over the house, even in the bedrooms.” That’s when her husband, Rolf, told her, “‘Andrea, you either find somewhere to put these things or it’s a divorce!’ So we decided to create a museum.”
Wander around the museum and you’ll find it hard to believe that the 20,000 pairs of shakers—fat chefs, ruby red tomatoes, guardsmen in bear skins, Santa’s feet sticking from a chimney, pistols and potatoes, a copy of the salt-and-pepper-shaker cuff links worn by Lady Diana—have any reason for being together other than as someone’s idea of being collectibles, but they do.
An archaeologist by training, Andrea spent many years working in South America, where her main interest had been in how people traveled and communicated. When she and her family moved to the United States, she couldn’t find work in her field so she turned her attention to social anthropology, studying everyday life since the early years of the 20th century as seen through her growing collection of salt and pepper shakers.
“It’s often by looking at the apparently more mundane articles in everyday life that you can build up a broad picture of a specific period,” Andrea says. “There’s almost nothing you can imagine that hasn’t been copied as a salt and pepper shaker, and many of them reflect the designs, the colors and the preoccupations of the period.”
Salt shakers came into existence in the 1920s, she says. Previously, salt was typically served in a small bowl or container (the original salt cellar), usually with a spoon, because it had a tendency to attract moisture and become lumpy. Then, Chicago-based Morton Salt introduced magnesium carbonate to its product, which prevented caking and made it possible to pour salt from a sealed container. Pepper never suffered from the same susceptibility to dampness and, like salt, had also been served from a small container. But as it was habit to serve salt and pepper together, they became a pair, usually the salt shaker with only one hole and the pepper shaker with two or three.
Morton’s development may have been the beginning of the salt and pepper shaker, but it was the automobile that led to its becoming a collectible item, says Alex. “It was because people could travel more freely, either for work or on vacation that the souvenir industry came about. Salt and pepper shakers were cheap, easy to carry and colorful, and made ideal gifts.”
“Imagine you lived in an isolated village somewhere,” he continues, “and your son or daughter brought you a set in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge when they came on their annual visit home. It wouldn’t get used, it would be carefully kept as a decorative item. That’s how, in the main, many of the early collections began.”