In the United States, the phrase “vintage salt-and-pepper shakers” brings pairs of kitschy pink elephants, playful black-and-white kittens, and matching Jack terriers to mind. But in 18th- and 19th-century England, more traditional looking salt-and-pepper shakers (also called pots or casters in those days) were produced in a range of striped or patterned earth tones.
The medium for these antique shakers was a type of slip-decorated ceramic called mochaware. Effects included dark treelike shapes that were produced by dropping an acidic solution containing urine (how, one wonders, did they discover that…) onto an object’s wet surface before firing. Other designs such as cat’s eyes were achieved by applying multiple colors of slip from a multi-chambered pot in repeated or hand-manipulated patterns. As for the shapes of the shakers themselves, they were typically rounded at the top and footed at the base with pear-shaped bodies, although some were produced as straight-sided cylinders.
In the 19th century, Staffordshire potteries produced salt-and-pepper shakers as parts of cruet sets. Many of these were novelty characters with pink cheeks and big hats. In the 1900s, with the advent of movies, shakers with character heads in the shapes of stars like Laurel and Hardy were popular—later, Staffordshire firms made more respectful sets bearing the stern images of famous cricket players either bowling or up to bat...
In 20th-century America, several trends were simultaneously in play. The first was toward a clean, white, sanitary look. That spawned square salt-and-pepper shakers made of milk glass and capped by threaded, metal lids in black, silver, Mandarin red, and Delft blue.
The painted designs on the sides of these milk glass shakers tended to be plain and simple—a Dutch boy or girl, a windmill, a black Scottie dog, flowers. Most lids were punctured with as few as one hole for pepper and multiple holes for salt, but some had dots forming the letters “S” or “P” drilled into their tops, lest there be any confusion about the contents inside.
McKee Glass Company, which made some of the earliest cookie jars, also made simple square shakers in the 1930s but chose Art Deco lettering instead of painted designs for most of its exteriors. McKee also bucked the milk-white trend in favor of colors such as amber, ruby, and a green hue called jadite, which glowed in the dark when exposed to a black light.
Of course, ceramic shakers were also popular, and Fiesta was just one of many mainstream brands that offered customers salt-and-pepper shakers to match its dinnerware line. In Fiesta’s case, the shakers were shaped like small, footed balls in whatever colors were in the Fiesta catalog at the time, be it medium green or persimmon. Shakers in the Harlequin line, which was Fiesta’s economy sister brand, looked like Art Deco ice-cream cones that tapered at the bottom until they encountered the shaker’s stabilizing foot.
A highly collectible category of World War II-era ceramic shaker is Blackamoor. These shakers typically featured caricatures of African-American Mammy and Chef figures, either full bodied or just as a bust. A bow usually topped Mammy’s head while Chef wore the obligatory white hat—one of the two usually held a mixing spoon.
In fact, around this time, numerous companies were leaving their marks on vintage ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers. McCoy made shakers that looked like vegetables, Enesco favored tiny creatures like mice and snails, Parkcraft made shakers in the shapes of states (Idaho was matched by a potato, Iowa by an ear of corn, etc.), while Lefton excelled at bluebirds and a bonneted kitten character it called Miss Priss.
Napco had a character too, Miss Cutie Pie, whose impossibly adorable face graced countless shaker designs. Sometimes these shakers featured handles glazed in the same color and pattern as the urchin’s hat, but most Miss Cutie Pie shakers were nothing but a sweetly smiling head.
Holt-Howard’s gimmick in the 1950s was something called pixieware, which describes any of its wide-faced, cartoon figures that graced the tops of everything from condiment jars to salt-and-pepper shakers. The ’50s and ’60s were also an era of plastic, which meant shakers could take shapes that might have appeared clumsy in ceramics. Thus, toasters, washing machines, and even lawn mowers were all re-imagined as salt-and-pepper shakers. Nicer plastic shakers were made of richly colored Bakelite or clear, contents-revealing Lucite.
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