Before matching salt-and-pepper shakers became popular in the late Victorian era, better households offered their guests salt cellars (or salts, as they were also known) and pepper casters at the dining table. The best examples of these objects were made out of sterling silver.
Salt cellars from the early part of the 18th century were round, rectangular, or octagonal in shape, usually with no feet. Later in the century, footed cellars with pierced sides were popular—a glass dish that fit within the cellar kept the salt from spilling out. In those days, guests did not typically “pass the salt.” Instead, salts were sold in sets, so that each guest might have his or her own, which was not a bad idea since salt was commonly applied to food with the fingers.
Casters were used for a number of spices, but they are most closely associated with pepper. So named because they allowed users to “cast” spices upon their food, casters had round bodies and domed tops, which were secured to the bodies with clasps. A variation on the caster was the pepper box, which accomplished the same thing as a caster but had squared-off sides and a handle.
By the 19th century, casters had won the design competition over cellars, as matching salt-and-pepper shakers that could be passed around the table from guest to guest became the dominant form. Some had ornately detailed feet and sides, with fussy finials at the top. Others were balanced on circular or square pedestals, and many antique sterling silver salt-and-pepper shakers were engraved with a family’s monogram.
Of particular interest to collectors are the novelty salt-and-pepper shakers from the Victorian era. British shakers in the form of dogs and bears are today very collectible. Also prized are the early 20th-century Art Nouveau shakers by Georg Jensen of Copenhagen and Liberty & Co. of London, which also produced silver shakers in the Arts and Crafts style.