Although the problems of salt solidifying in the pot or bag had been overcome when the Morton Salt Company added magnesium carbonate to their product in 1911, making it possible to pour salt from a sealed container, it wasn’t until the mid- to late-1920s that figural salt shakers began to be manufactured on a large-scale basis. One of the earliest producers, the German fine quality pottery maker, Goebel, introduced their first three sets of shakers in 1923, and by seven years later they had added a further fourteen pairs to their collection. (In 1935 they introduced the first of the famous Hummel figures, some of the most collectable in the salt and pepper shaker world.)
As every cloud is supposed to have a silver lining – in this case probably silver-plated – it was the Great Depression of the 1930s that gave a major boost to the popularisation of salt and pepper shakers, as both a household and collectable item. Ceramic producers worldwide were forced to restrict production and concentrate on lower priced items; an obvious product was the humble salt and pepper shaker. Colourful, bright and cheery, it could be bought for a few coppers at most local hardware stores, but it was an apparently unconnected development that really opened up the world of collecting salt and pepper shakers as a hobby.
“Morton’s development was the beginning of the salt shaker, but funnily enough, it was the automobile that lead to them becoming collectable items,” say Alex Ludden, whose family collection of over forty thousand different pairs, the biggest in the world, is on display at their Salt and Pepper Shaker Museums in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Guadalest in eastern Spain. “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 colourful and made ideal gifts. Imagine you lived in an isolated village somewhere 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.”
Some of the world’s leading ceramics companies began producing salt and pepper shakers. Japan had a large share of the market from the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, as well as the late 1940s and 1950s. The disruption was caused by World War II, and the shakers produced by Japan in the post-war years, labelled ‘Made in occupied Japan’, or simply ‘Occupied Japan’ are extremely rare and highly sought after. Even the famous Art Deco designer, Clarice Cliff, produced a hand-painted range.
The hey-day of salt and pepper shaker production was between the 1920s and 1960s, with those made from plastic in the 50s and 60s being of special interest to some people. Plastic is breakable, so fewer of those examples exist, and there are specialist collectors that pay highly for models from that period.
The design of salt and pepper shakers was limited only by the designer’s imagination – and that was totally unlimited. “There’s almost nothing you can imagine that hasn’t been copied as a salt and pepper shaker,” says Alex Ludden, “and many of them reflect the designs, the colours, and the preoccupations of the period. For example, a cooker from the 1940’s will look totally different from the cookers of the 1990’s, and it’s through using these differences and the materials they were made of that we can get an idea of how people lived at any given time.”
But the world of salt and pepper shakers knows no boundaries; from the Cellini Saliera, cast in solid gold (and sometimes referred to as the ‘Mona Lisa of Sculpture’), insured for $60million, to the prosaic plastic red pepper, a steal at only 75 cents at the local hardware store, there’s something for everyone.