Vintage Salt and Pepper Shakers

Martha Stewart Living, June 2011

The dynamic duo of condiments, salt and pepper sit on virtually every table in America. No wonder so much creative attention has been lavished on their dispensers. Over the years, salt and pepper shakers have taken the form of everything from barnyard animals to national monuments. But what crops up again and again in the novelty-shaker world is produce: bananas, peaches, cucumbers, and other fruits and vegetables designed to contain the seasonings.

Back in the late 19th century, the once-precious commodities of salt and pepper became available to everyone. By the 1940s and '50s, dinner parties and fancy luncheons often called for individual shaker sets at each place setting. That's when fruit and vegetable shakers came into popularity. "Competitive hostesses were all trying to outdo one another with their tabletop items," says Martha Stewart Living's collecting editor, Fritz Karch.

Chiquita Bonanza
It's easy to see why anthropomorphized fruit and veggie shakers are some of the most desirable and expensive pieces. "They tend to have big eyes and endearing faces, and are obviously very cute," says Diane Petipas, a dealer in vintage dinnerware. Sets fetch $45 to $75.

Shakers, from $5 per pair; Mood Indigo, 212-254-1176 or moodindigonewyork.com.

Wood berry basket, in Lemon (#7100-TB-PWY-1), $2.25; Fancy Flours, 406-587-0118 or fancyflours.com.

At the same time, as car travel was increasing, fruit and vegetable shakers also took off as road-trip souvenirs. Their form frequently reflected their place of origin -- peaches from Georgia, potatoes from Idaho, oranges from Florida -- and dispensers were sometimes inscribed with the name of the destination as well as the date.

Many of the shakers from this era were made in Japan for export to the United States. All are ceramic, the most commonly used material for shakers at the time. "You could typically buy them for 49 cents or $1, so collecting them was an inexpensive hobby," says Diane Petipas, owner of Mood Indigo, a New York City shop specializing in vintage dinnerware. Today, these sets sell in thrift stores, at flea markets, and on eBay for as little as $5, and single salt or pepper shakers that have lost their mates can be had for as little as $1.

By the Bushel
Reflecting the wide availability of their edible counterparts in mid-century America, tomatoes, apples, strawberries, corn, and watermelons were all produced in mass quantities, making them easier to find today than other salt and pepper shakers. They typically sell for just $5 to $25 a pair. Whole fruits are fairly garden-variety, while slices are rarer and usually cost more. These kinds of fruits and vegetables were also popular motifs on other pieces of tableware, and you can often find a complete set of vintage tomato- or corn-themed dishes, including serving trays, cream and sugar sets, and teapots.

Farmers' Market baskets, from $20; Jayson Home and Garden, 800-472-1885 or jaysonhomeandgarden.com.

Within a set, salt and pepper shakers aren't always identical twins. One shaker may be bigger than the other. Companies also created all kinds of mismatched sets: beets with carrots, onions with garlic, and bananas with (naturally) monkeys. Some shakers were produced as part of a series; the banana playing cymbals and the tangerine wielding a painter's palette, for example, were part of the same group of fruit characters.

Although it may have seemed novel to pour salt from a strawberry or shake pepper from a pants-wearing turnip, the concept isn't unprecedented in history. "In ancient Greece, vessels were made in the shapes of animals; cups with stag heads were made in ancient Rome; and majolica ware tea sets were made in lots of funny forms," Fritz says. "A sense of figural whimsy has always had a place at the dinner table."

Juicy Finds
To determine a shaker's age and value, look closely at its workmanship. "Older sets were made with more care," collecting editor Fritz Karch says. Notice the tangerines' realistically mottled skin and the cabbage's delicate leaves. Older versions also have tiny cork stoppers; newer ones have larger plastic stoppers. Finally, look for shakers that are stamped "Japan" on the bottom (most shakers these days are made in China or Taiwan).

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