It’s amazing the things you learn when you least expect it. When I visited the idiosyncratic Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Guadalest, on Spain’s Costa Blanca, I was given an in-depth lecture about the world of salt, salt and pepper shakers, and salt cellars from Andrea Ludden and her son Alex. And very interesting it was.
As we wandered around the museum I found it hard to believe that the twenty-thousand pair display of fat chefs, ruby red tomatoes, guardsmen in bear skins, The Beatles, Santa’s feet sticking out of a chimney, pistols and potatoes, a copy of the salt and pepper shaker cufflinks that Lady Diana wore, (which, fortunately, are sealed, or their contents would have sprayed everywhere when she shook hands), have any other reason for coming together than simply being someone’s idea of being collectable – but they do.
“Salt is much more important in our lives and history than most people think,” says Alex. “The word salarium, salary, comes from the fact that Roman soldiers were paid part of their income in salt. It’s also thought that the word ‘soldier’ itself comes from the Latin sal dare, to give salt. If you look at common phrases such as ‘the salt of the earth’, he’s not worth his salt’, ‘below the salt’, etc. you can get an idea of how important salt was.” And it still is, because without salt in our diet we couldn’t survive.
The collection of over forty thousand pairs, half in Guadalest and half in their museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, started by the simple purchase of a pepper mill at a garage sale, shortly after the family moved to the US – but it didn’t work!
“That first one didn’t work, so I bought a couple more,” says Andrea. “I used to stand them on the window ledge of my kitchen, and neighbours thought I was building a collection. Nothing could have been further from my mind! They began to bring me some beautiful ones, and eventually I had about 14,000 on shelves all over the house, even in the bedrooms. So we decided to create a museum.”
The vogue for collecting salt and pepper shakers was mainly brought about by the invention of the automobile. 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.”
There’s almost nothing you can imagine that hasn’t been copied as a salt and pepper shaker, and many of them reflect the designs, the colours, 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.
The hey-day of salt and pepper shaker production was between the 1920s and 60s, with those made from plastic in the 50s and 60s being of special interest to some people. But the world of salt and pepper shakers and cellars 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 bargain shop, there’s something for everyone.