Take a seat at any restaurant in the Western world and you're likely to find a pair of salt and pepper shakers on the table. These prolific mealtime helpers may seem somewhat mundane to us today, but if you take a peek into their history, you'll find that they're anything but bland!
The first screw-top salt shaker was invented in 1858 by John Landis Mason. Fun fact: he also happens to be the man who invented the Mason jar. Though Mason's jars were an immediate success, his salt shakers didn't catch on quite as quickly, as salt had a tendency to clump together, making it impossible to shake out of the perforated cap. In fact, it took another half a century for Mason's invention to catch on — thanks to the ingenuity of the Morton Salt Company of Chicago. In the 1920s, the company began adding magnesium carbonate (an anti-caking agent) to their salt, making it resistant to clumping and perfect for sprinkling through the top of a shaker.
While earlier salt and pepper shakers were more traditional in style, the Great Depression led to an abundance of inexpensive, cheerful, whimsical, and colorful shakers. However, the event that really sparked the collecting of salt and pepper shakers was the increasing ubiquity of the automobile.
As travel became more and more popular, so did the souvenir industry — and salt and pepper shakers made an ideal gift to bring back home to friends and family. Suddenly, some people found they owned more salt and pepper shakers than they could possibly put to use (or maybe they were just too darn cute to use), and the salt and pepper shaker collector was born.
Today, vintage salt and pepper shakers are a joy to collect for many of the same reasons they were when people first started collecting them — they come in an astounding array of styles, colors, and materials, and are still quite affordable.
Vintage-lovers will appreciate the fact that shakers have a knack for representing what was in vogue at the time of their production — from color schemes to themes, and even the material out of which they were made.
Are you a fan of vintage jadeite? There's a shaker set for that. Love the 1960s flower power aesthetic? There's a psychedelic shaker set for that. And there's a shaker set for just about every interest in between, too!
Like many types of vintage home goods, the easiest way to identify a vintage shaker is by turning it upside down (be sure to throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder if any spills out!) and looking for a back stamp or manufacturer's mark. If you see "Made in USA" or "Japan" somewhere on the bottom, you're almost definitely looking at a vintage piece, as the United States and Japan were the leading producers of shakers during their heyday. If you're very lucky, you may even find a rarer set marked "Occupied Japan" — this means that the shakers were produced in post-WWII Japan.
Sets with multiple parts or moving pieces are also highly sought-after, as they were more likely to break or become separated from the other pieces in the set.
The main thing to remember when searching for vintage salt and pepper shaker sets is to just have fun. Collect sets that inspire and excite you, and before long, you'll be a well-seasoned collector, too!
Feeling inspired to start a collection of your own? Watch here as Martha Stewart Living's collectibles expert Fritz Karch offers his tips for new collectors: