Hanging salt boxes used to be taken for granted in kitchens throughout northern Europe and colonial America. There they were, on the wall next to where you cooked.
The pictures on this page are all European, but salt boxes were an essential part of life for settlers in North America too. They pounded salt lumps with a mortar and pestle to make it ready for culinary use. Salt was important for preserving food as well as cooking it.
In colonial homes, free-flowing grains [of salt] began with placing the salt box near the fire for drying out lumps or removing a brick to make a salt niche.
Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Encyclopedia of Kitchen History
In damp, cool weather salt absorbs moisture from the air. Cooks in colder places used to help it stay dry by keeping it:
- near the fire or stove – most important
- in an airy place – hanging on the wall kept it away from damp
- covered – though not all salt boxes had a lid
The practical Pennsylvania Dutch housewife suspended a patterned and decorated covered salt box on the wall to contain enough crystals for preserving meat or as a granular extinguisher for dousing a kitchen fire.
Snodgrass, Encyclopedia, as above
Wooden salt boxes could be covered with decorative carving, sometimes as an engagement gift, painted, veneered, or left plain. Antique boxes that look simple may be very well crafted. Look at the quality of wood and joints, the hinging of the lid, the hanger, and the overall finish.
A salt box and a welcoming home
The salt box was full of meaning, over and above its practical importance. It was a symbol of hospitality in Germany, and suggested a well-run and comfortable home in Britain and Ireland too. Like salt itself the box might not be noticeable, and yet it was essential for cooking.
…her kitchen was…large, comfortable, and warm. …to the right hung a well-scoured salt-box…Over the door…were nailed, “for luck”, two horse-shoes that had been found by accident. In a little ” hole” in the wall, beneath the salt-box, lay a great bottle of holy water to keep the place purified…
Lianhan Shee, an Irish story collected by William Carleton, 1833
But if the salt box was unavailable the house was miserable and unwelcoming.
It was a very dark miserable place, very low, and very damp…The grate…was…screwed up tight, so as to hold no more than a little thin sandwich of fire. Everything was locked up; the coal-cellar, the candle-box, the salt-box, the meat-safe, were all padlocked…The pinched and meagre aspect of the place would have killed a chameleon.
Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock, 1840-41
Salt box variations
Not all hanging boxes were wooden. You may see relatively modern ones in enamelware or earthenware with a wooden hanger and lid. Also see this highly decorative pewter salt box from before 1600.
Ceramic salt holders to sit in a niche or on a shelf were an alternative to boxes for some people. They often had a round opening in the side like this characteristically Scottish “saut bucket”.