Most British people still call the container of salt with the holes in the top that sits on the table a ‘salt cellar’ little realising that the name actually refers to a dish or box, or some other sort of container that holds the salt, which is usually served by way of a small spoon or a pinch of the fingers. The more widely used name is the ‘salt shaker’, usually accompanied by the ‘pepper shaker’. Even so, that much used and often ignored little piece of household utility has had a fair range of nomenclature.
For a period during the late 1850s to 1880s, the salt shaker was known by such names as spice box, dredge box or bottle, dredging box, salt bottle and condiment box. Less frequent terms for salt dispensers at the time were: box, cellar, cruet, cup, distributor, holder, package, receptacle, sifter, duster, sprinkler and vessel. (The terms ‘sifter’ and ‘duster’ were more usually used with sugar or flour when baking.)
Salt may be a common-or-garden product to us today, but historically its high value merited a container of equal standing, as they would have been symbolic of social standing and economic status not only among families, but within a single household. The prestige and superstitions associated with salt holders in olden times were due in part to the scarcity and high price of salt. (When Leonardo de Vinci placed an overturned salt dish in front of Judas Escariat in his painting The Last Supper, he did so because he considered it an ill omen.)
During the Middle Ages in England, dishes for salt and other food were often made of pewter, horn or wood. Silver was more frequently used in cups and in the large and ornate salt holders. This salt holder, often an ornate and richly decorated affair, marked the boundary line on the table between those of honorable estate and the commoners, which gave rise to the saying, ‘below the salt’, signifying someone of little importance.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, English silversmiths made elaborate ‘Salts’, and, in his diary of 1625, Charles I commented on a ‘salt’ made of gold, weighing 150 ounces and studded with sapphires, rubies, pearls and emeralds.
Some of the early salt shakers were actually salt mills, with a variety of mechanisms used inside them to break up the rock salt, much like a pepper grinder today. (These are still produced today for those who prefer their salt, like their pepper, freshly ground.)
It’s sometime said that salt shakers were invented in 1858 by John Mason, the man who invented the screw-top Mason jar. He created a receptacle to hold salt that would evenly distribute it on food, by shaking it through several holes punched into a tin cap. But these were short live, and it wasn’t until just over fifty years later, when the Morton Salt Company of Chicago added magnesium carbonate to their product to make it flow, that the salt shaker can truly said to have been born.