AskDefine | Define saltcellar

Dictionary Definition

saltcellar n : a small container for holding salt at the dining table

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A box for keeping salt in, usually with a cover. Now usually replaced with a salt shaker. The word is largely archaic.


A box for keeping salt in, usually with a cover

Extensive Definition

A salt cellar is a small dish for holding salt. The use of salt cellars continued through the 1940s, but has been in decline since and been gradually replaced with salt shakers. The exterior surfaces of a cellar are frequently decorated with birds, lemons or other designs, and may have the word "salt" on them in various languages. A salt cellar often has a lid to protect the contents and keep it dry. The lid may be made of the same material as the cellar, or a different one (for example, a porcelain cellar with a wooden lid). Salt cellars, also known as salt dips, open salts, and salt dishes, are not cellars at all, but an open dish, without a lid, that was used by wealthy families from the middle ages until WW II. The bowl, along with a very small spoon, was passed to guests by the head of the household. It is still possible to find salt cellars today, but they are not used as table decorations. They have lids and are used near the stove so the cook has easy access to salt while preparing meals. These are less likely to be elaborately decorated, and may have a range of designs for ease of use. For example, a salt cellar with a high back containing a hole allows the cellar to be mounted to a wall. Another style is a container shaped like a curved tube. The curvature protects the salt a little, but the cellar is open allowing the cook to reach in and take salt. Salt cellars used to be made of glass, but in recent times can be found in many different media, including porcelain, pewter, silver, and wood. Sometime after 1950, salt cellars have become a coveted collectible.
In ancient times salt was a precious commodity. In Tibet, according to Marco Polo, cakes of salt displayed a likeness of the ruler and were used as money. In ancient Greece, slaves were traded for salt and over 2000 years before the birth of Christ, the Chinese emperor levied a salt tax. Not only was this the first salt tax, it was first tax of any kind.
During the Middle Ages, when salt was a valuable commodity, salt would be kept on the table in elaborate metal or glass dishes as a status symbol. Being granted the favor of sharing the salt cellar of the host was seen as a sign of great respect. The social status of a person was often measured simply by judging the distance at which the guest sat from the master's salt cellar. In the more recent past, salt was still very costly and precious. For example, before refrigeration salt was the main ingredient for preserving food.
In the early 20th century, moisture absorbing agents [magnesium carbonate] were added to salt and it was no longer sold in blocks, but was finely ground. In 1924, Morton became the first company to produce iodized salt for the table to help prevent goiters, recognized as a widespread health problem in the U.S. at that time. Salt cellars were replaced with salt shakers somewhere around 1950.


The Salt Cellar is an English translation of the Saliera, the name of a famous gold sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini.
saltcellar in Polish: Solniczka
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