Among the earliest producers of salt and pepper shakers was the German fine pottery maker Goebel, which introduced its first three sets in 1925. (Today its Hummel shakers, introduced in 1935, are highly collectible.) Ironically, it was the Great Depression of the 1930s that gave a major boost to the popularity of salt and pepper shakers as both a household and collectible item. Ceramics producers worldwide were forced to restrict production and concentrate on lower-priced items; an obvious product was the salt and pepper shaker. Bright and cheery, it could be bought for a few cents at most local hardware stores.
Soon other ceramics companies got into the act. Japanese firms had a large share of the market from the late 1920s through the 1930s, as well as from the late 1940s through the 1950s. (Production was halted during World War II.) The shakers they produced in the postwar years, labeled “Made in occupied Japan,” or simply “Occupied Japan,” are extremely rare and highly sought after.
In the 1950s and ’60s, companies began producing salt and pepper shakers made from plastic. Plastic then was fragile, so fewer of these examples exist, making them extremely valuable. “I love the plastics,” says daughter Andrea as she walks me around the museum. “They were the first ones that could have some sort of mechanism, and one of my favorites is a lawn mower with the salt and pepper shakers in the shape of the pistons.” When the driver pushed the mower, the pistons went up and down.
At first glance, the museum seems bright and happy, if a bit haphazard. But the displays are actually well thought out and organized, especially considering the many models on display.
“It’s almost impossible to categorize them,” the younger Andrea said, “because you can work by style, age, subject matter, color, etc., but we try and do it to combine all these elements at the same time. There are literally hundreds of themes, and in those themes there will be many colors, but Mom has a way of laying the displays out that are very highly planned, so that the colors within a theme are displayed together. For example,” she continues, “all the greens, yellows and reds of the vegetables are arranged in vertical rows, so you get bright color bands, but all the shakers are on the same theme. It’s a lot more complicated than it sounds because there are so many of them.”
A large number of the shaker sets are humorous in their design: an aspirin salt shaker and a martini-glass pepper shaker. And when displays are set up, there is sometimes an opportunity to create a visual joke.
“In one section,” says Andrea, “you see what looks like models of the Southwest U.S.—adobe houses of the style found in New Mexico, with cactus and cowboys and Indians. But behind them are two UFOs that have crashed and two aliens that glow in the dark. It’s the Roswell UFO crash in the 1940s.
It’s amazing how many of the shakers tell a tale that isn’t obvious to everyone. One of her favorites is a chef holding a cat in one hand and a cleaver in the other. “I always thought it was just a fun item,” says Andrea, “but my mom explained that it was very significant to older people who had been through the Depression and major wars. Food was short, but you still had to eat, so if a cat strayed by, it went into the pot and came out as ‘chicken surprise.’”
As I continue the tour, I’m absorbed by all the weird and wonderful shakers: Coca-Cola cans; Dolly Parton’s photo on a souvenir from Dollywood—“The Smokies most fun place”; Mickey and Minnie in chefs toques and aprons; the Beatles with the cropped hair and collarless jackets of their early days (George Harrison and John Lennon joined together as salt and Paul McCartney and Ringo Star as pepper); a turquoise TV with Lucy Arnaz and her neighbor, Ethel Mertz, on the screen (the salt) and a sofa with an “I love Lucy” heart-shaped cushion (the pepper); alligators with sunshades from Florida; bullfighters and bulls from Spain; kangaroos from Australia; a bobby and double-decker bus from London; before-and-after versions of Mount St. Helens made from the actual volcanic ash. There are also familiar ones: shakers your grandmother used to have, or you saw when you went on vacation somewhere, or you gave as a gift once.
“People come back over and over again and think that we are adding to the displays,” says Andrea, “but we aren’t. It’s just that they didn’t see them the first time around.”