When You Don’t Want to Shake It

Wooden container with lid

Looks like it belongs on top of your banister, doesn't it?

What Is It?

I know it looks like a wooden finial, but it’s really an antique salt cellar.

How Does It Work?

Back in the day, salt was a hopping commodity. People in ye olde times didn’t realize that salt is pretty much everywhere, and since you need salt to live, ye olde people went to war for a pinch of the white stuff. (Think about how we go nuts for a barrel of the bubbling crude, and you’ll get the idea.)

Anyway, salt was expensive. So, rather than just shaking it willy nilly all over the place, anybody with a bit of wealth would have a salt cellar on the table for their guests. Being a corrosive material, salt cellars needed to be fashioned out of something that wouldn’t tarnish. You could start with pottery or wood and work your way up to crystal or enameled gold if you had a lot of extra dough flying around. Then, you’d have to make sure you hired a servant to lock the salt away at the end of the day and carefully wipe out any stray salt bits to keep your lovely cellar from getting pitted.

Other than that, they’re pretty easy to use. Open lid, insert salt. Some have fancy spoons for table service, others are more for the cook to dip his/her fingers in whilst cooking. This particular model came from my grandmother’s house. I believe she toted it all the way from Italy. I’m not sure of the date, but guess it’s somewhere in the 1800s. (Big range, but I’m an armchair historian, so forgive me.)

Do I Really Need It?

They sell modern ones—made out of porcelain or olive wood. If you have a nice salt and pepper shaker set, you’re fine for the table. (Surprisingly, I have counted my salt/pepper shaker sets. In my short life, I have managed to collect seven sets. Don’t ask me how. It is a mystery to me as well.) The open cellars come in handy if you want to grab some salt on the fly and have the countertop space to do so.

Where Can I Get My Own?

The antique ones are littering eBay. Modern varieties are available via Amazon and other online retailers. Or, you could get your Martha Stewart on and craft your own.


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