Salt cellars, also known as salts, have stored and dispensed salt since antiquity. Cellars can either be open or lidded and are displayed in a broad range of sizes, from small individual dishes to large communal vessels. Styles can represent simple articles or whimsical and ornate items, each of which may be made of such materials as ivory, wood, plastic, glass, or ceramic.
The use of salt cellars has been documented since classical Roman times and continued to be used regularly through the mid-1900s. However, the use of salt shakers saw a decline when free-flowing salt was introduced in 1911. Free-flowing salt was easier to add to food than salt from a cellar. Most of the salt cellars of earlier times were collectibles – pieces displayed in glass, pewter, and silver. Today, like salt shakers, they are used at the table or are displayed as a collectible.
Terms for Salt Cellars
The word salt cellar combines the world salt with the word of Anglo-Norman origin, saler (salt cellar). Salt cellars are not only made in various styles, but they also have assorted names in the English language. They have been referred to as salts, salt dips, master salts, salt dishes, and standing salts. A master salt is a large piece of tableware that houses smaller salt dishes. According to custom, the master salt was open, lidded, or covered with cloth.
A standing salt is a type of master salt, so named because it stayed in place versus being passed around a table. A trencher salt is a smaller salt cellar that is situated next to a trencher. Uncovered salt dishes are known as salt dips or open salts. The term salt cellar refers also to any container that is used for table salt, including salt pigs and salt shakers.
A Necessary Condiment
Salt has always been a necessary seasoning. For example, the Romans used a receptacle known as a salinum, which was usually made of silver and thought to be an essential item in every home. The salinum was ceremonially important as it was used for the salt offering made at mealtime. It also was used to dispense salt to the diners.
During the Middle Ages, elaborate master salt cellars were regularly used. These containers, which were placed at the top of the table, were not only prominently presented but were signs of prosperity and status. In fact, the social status of the guests was determined by where they sat in connection with the salt cellar. High-ranking people sat above the master cellar whilst those of lesser importance sat below the master cellar.
Indeed, the ornate master salts had a great deal of influence as they were made through the Baroque and Renaissance periods. You might think master salts would be common today, given modern man’s love for salty, savoury foods. However, the containers have been scaled down since those times. By the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s and 1800s, both salt and the salt cellar were considered commonplace.