This article notes the various designs and manufacturers of salt dishes, noting the slight differences between similar-looking items created by competing companies. It originally appeared in the June 1939 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Greater variety of form and decoration are to be found in salt cellars than in any other piece of tableware made by American glassworkers. Over a thousand different designs are known to collectors and others are still being found. They range from 18th-Century examples, blown in clear or colored glass by Stiegel or Wistar workmen, to small individual dishes of the pattern-glass decades.
Outstanding for variety are those contemporary with Lacy Sandwich glass. The technique of pressing or casting glass in finely cut iron molds that made lacy glass possible was also ideal for making an infinite variety of these salt dishes. Many were, themselves, examples of Lacy Sandwich glass; others reflected current forms and design trends, such as the sofas of the American Empire period, typical Early Victorian objects, or ornate French decorative conceptions.
Also, American salt dishes made from about 1830 to some indefinite date between the discovery of gold in California and the Civil War sometimes harked back to shapes used by Georgian silversmiths; others were directly inspired by the fine cut glass of England, Ireland, and other European countries of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries; and the use of opaque glass resulted in salt dishes which simulated china or fine earthenware. In fact, there seems to have been few forms, decorative details or styles that were not used as source material.
Since only five types of pressed glass salt dishes bearing lettering as a clue of origin are known, it is impossible to state definitely just what American glass factories made these little table pieces. But probably they were widely produced in the leading establishments equipped to work with molten glass and iron molds. We do know that the various factories copied popular designs of their competitors with an easygoing disregard for proprietary rights possessed by the company originating such a model.
On the other hand, since considerable number of these salt dishes are distinctly Lacy, and since nearly fifty salt-dish fragments of varied design have been found in collections of fragments recovered on the site of the Sandwich factory, it is obvious that the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company must have been an important if not the leading producer of such pieces. Also, a marked example, plus the fact that as early as 1818 it was advertising “moulded and fan end salts,” indicate that the New England Glass Company at Cambridge was a large producer. The three other known marked salt dishes may have come from either of these two factories or may have been made by other glassworks.
The sudden burst of salt-dish production, in a wide variety of shapes and patterns, about 1830 is easily accounted for. In the vicinity of Syracuse, New York, and elsewhere in the country, large deposits of salt were being so extensively worked that this essential seasoning was no longer a luxury but commonplace. Consequently, there was a steady demand for small dishes in which it could be placed on the dining tables of even the most modest homes.
Among the lettered salt dishes, the side-wheel steamboat shape is best known. Hereon each paddle box, above a five-pointed star are the raised capital letters, “LAFAYET”; on the flat stern appears the inscription, “* B. & S. GLASS Co *”; and on the oval base and on the bottom of the inside appears the word “SANDWICH” in raised letters.
When first discovered, the general inclination was to consider it a souvenir made to commemorate the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to the United States in his old age. But this was in 1824-25, before the Sandwich factory was producing as finely molded pieces.
Another explanation is that it was named in compliment to Lafayette Fessenden, who succeeded Deming Jarves in the management of the works. This would be plausible, especially as his nickname was “Laf,” but I have recently learned that a fragment of one of these boat salt dishes was recovered two or three years ago by F. L. Wynn of Sandwich from beneath the foundation of one of the shops built before 1850. So, either this “LAFAYET” was made earlier than the Fessenden regime or the shop foundation was repaired at a later date when the fragment might at that time have found lodgment there. One thing is certain – this boat-shaped salt dish was a standard Sandwich product and was made in considerable quantity. Examples of it are not excessively rare. It is found in clear glass, opalescent, opaque blue, and translucent blue with an opalescent tinge.
The marked salt dish of the New England Glass Company is a box-shaped oblong that flares slightly and has corner columns and small knob feet. The panels of the sides are decorated with baskets of fruit in relief and the end panels with a raised rose spray. There is one flower in full bloom, a bud to the right, two rose leaves, and a delicate branching stem. On the base, in an irregular oval-shaped recessed panel, is the four-line inscription, “N. E. GLASS COMPANY BOSTON,” in raised letters not too clearly cut. In his book, Salt Dishes, C. W. Brown states that this salt dish, which occurs in clear and opalescent white glass, was made in three different molds with minor variations.
Closely resembling it is the salt dish lettered in three lines on the bottom in an oblong panel with rounded corners, “JERSEY GLASS. Co. Nr. N. YORK.” This is identical in shape with the marked Cambridge piece and the details of decoration are so close that the differences are only apparent when examples of each are examined side by side. In so doing, I noted the following detail in which the Jersey example differs. In the basket of fruit motif, the melon is less pronounced and the general outline differs slightly. Also, in the rose sprays on the end panels the bud is at the left of the full-blown flower, and there are three leaves that are larger and have a fernlike appearance. This dish was made in clear and green glass.
The existence of the Jersey Glass Company, with its factory in Jersey City practically on the shore of New York Harbor, is well known. Several examples of blown wineglasses that were made there are known, but this salt dish is the only example of pressed glass bearing this company’s label. However, in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology collection of fragments, recovered from the site of the Sandwich factory, there is a piece of this Jersey salt dish in green glass with the letter “G” and part of the rose spray showing the looped stem. Naturally, this raises a question as to whether this salt dish might have been made at Sandwich for the New Jersey company, which is known to have bought its supply of oxide lead from the Cape Cod glasshouse. It is quite possible that, being chiefly a blown-glass factory, it may have contracted with the Boston and Sandwich company to manufacture these salt dishes.
Another marked dish which also raises several questions is a box-shaped rococo one with bracket feet. It has a leaf design and small shields at each end. In the base beneath two leaf springs, joined to a central diamond, is the word “PROVIDENCE.” This is so placed that it must be read by holding the dish to the light and looking through the bottom. It is found only in clear glass. And since no glass factory of this name making pressed glass was operating at this time, the general belief is that this salt dish was made for a special occasion, or possibly for an enterprising dealer located in that city by some other factory, perhaps Sandwich.
An identified fragment is also in the Technology collection, indicating that it too was actually made at Sandwich. The same design is also found without lettering and a large oak leaf replacing the other design in the base. It is known in clear and cloudy-clear glass.
The fifth marked dish is a flaring oblong, one with baskets of flowers on the sides and Gothic panels at the ends. In the base is a very early steam locomotive drawing one freight car. Beneath the rails and crossties is lettered in italics “H. CLAY.” There are two explanations for this design. One is that it was made in honor of the Henry Clay, a famous locomotive, about 1830, of the Lexington and Louisville Railway. Of course, it was a long way from Cape Cod to Kentucky, but I would be inclined to believe that Sandwich made this salt dish for that purpose, rather than that the Boston and Sandwich Company had its own switching engine of the same name and so made this special design for itself. Of course, both are conjectures, since it is not known for certain that the Henry Clay salt dish was actually produced at Sandwich. The same piece is also found with a geometric design of the waffle pattern replacing the railroad and lettering. Both come only in clear glass.
In addition to the labeled salt dishes are others of pressed glass in a wide variety of patterns. Many of them directly related to the Lacy Sandwich glass of the period. A few have covers with a pineapple or cone finial serving as the handle. They are shaped like small jewel caskets with scroll feet and usually a stippled background and Victorian all-over design. One in particular has a fairly large lyre in the center of the sides; and, as such, is related to many other pieces of glass having this same motif.
Among the many oblong-shaped salt dishes, several are directly adapted from the American Empire sofas which were current about the time these small glass pieces began to be made. The sofa-shaped salt dishes that I have studied include one with French bracket feet curving outward and typical sofa ends; one with heavier bracket feet that curve inward while the ends are flaring cyma curves; and a most ambitious design has ends in the form of eagles with heads turned inward and holding in their bills snakes that loop and form the upper edge of the dish. Beneath the snake-heads in the center is an American shield showing stripes but no stars. These are found in clear, opalescent, colored, and opaque-white glass.
During this period, too, a number and variety of compotes were made in Lacy glass, and these also appeared in miniature as salt dishes. With some, the foot and stem are pronounced; with others, the container rests directly on a foot.
One of the most unusual of the larger Lacy Sandwich pieces is an oblong relish dish, with cover and matching tray done in a Gothic design. I have seen a salt dish with this same decoration but lacking cover and tray. The eight-sided, lozenge-shaped, deep plate was another popular Lacy piece. And this, too, is found in the salt dish, as well as a number of other oblong dishes not as deep as the boxlike or oval ones. One oval salt dish, with fine crosshatching like that of Waterford or Bristol cut glass, has a most unusual base of four bear paw feet, reflecting the western explorations of General Fremont. Still other salt dishes are directly copied from Lacy punch bowls in shape and proportions. One in particular has circular decorations showing the famous ship Cadmus.
When these salt dishes were made in opaque glass, either white or in shades of blue, there seems to have been a direct effort to simulate the raised decorations characteristic of the work of Wedgwood and his imitators. It is surprising how frequently a pottery similarity was achieved. One in particular was decorated with a classic chariot scene very close indeed to designs made in the 18th Century by the artist Flaxman.
To go into detailed description of all of the pressed glass salt dishes is impossible, but some of the novel shapes should not be passed over without brief mention. One of these resembles a Napoleon or sleighbed; another is a regulation sleigh, complete with runners but with no shafts for the horse. There is also one with four wheels shaped like a wagon; and finally there are box-shaped salt dishes with the oblong interior divided into two compartments. It has been suggested that these were intended for salt and pepper.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.