AND RAVIN' WITH MIKE
Copyright © 2003 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved
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Open Salts: Worth Their Salt
As I've mentioned, I enjoy hanging out in antique shops, not the shoppes , with all their attitude, but the ones where I can find things that I remember from when I was a kid. Over the years, I've been puzzled by some little pieces of glass, not like anything I remember seeing in my home, much too big to be beads (and they don't have holes for stringing), but apparently too small (one is sitting on a quarter, right) to be any sort of bowl, which they look like... maybe a bowl for a very dedicated dieter.
I've learned that they have various names, salt dips, salt cellars, salt dishes, and most commonly, open salts. Their name reflects their use: they were made as dishes for salt. They reflect the taste of an earlier time when tables were cluttered with an assortment of specialized fish forks, bone plates, and knife rests. Most of those quaint utensils may still have their place, but open salts were made obsolete by one cute little girl with a big umbrella.
Although obsolete, open salts are favorites among collectors, so much so that there is a National Open Salt Convention every year. (Look below for information about a website devoted to open salts that I discovered after writing this article.) As I have gotten more intrigued by open salts, I've learned that they come not only in glass (of every variety and color) but also in porcelain, pewter, silver, and just about any other material in which a small dish can be shaped. For various reasons, I've decided that open salts just might be the perfect collectible for these early days of the twenty-first century. By the way, I've limited my acquisitions to colorless glass, whether pressed or cut, but even such a limitation leaves thousands of little treasures to choose from.
There are a few good articles about open salts on the Internet, such
Salt Collecting," by Ed and Kay Berg, and "The
Wonderful World of Open Salts," by "pjt," a member of the
Glass & Pottery Sellers' Association, in whose recent newsletter the
article appears. I regret that the author of the second article chose
quasi-anonymity, because it was in that article that I learned that in the
painting of The
Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci placed
an overturned salt-cellar in front of Judas Iscariot.
placed an overturned salt-cellar in front of Judas Iscariot.
Open salt dishes have a long tradition and have even contributed a phrase to our language. In The People For Whom Shakespeare Wrote, Charles Dudley Warner describes a table from the poet's time:
The long table was divided into upper and lower messes by a huge salt-cellar; and the consequence of the guests was marked by their seats above or below the salt. The distinction extended to the fare, for wine frequently circulated only above the salt, and below it the food was of coarser quality.
Note on texts: I link to texts in the Blackmask.com archives, currently offering over ten thousand titles, which, as far as I know, makes it the largest online library. I used its sometimes quirky search engine to find the Briggs quote; the Warner quote, I found on my own.
Although collectors favor exquisitely ornamental little salts, Charles Frederick Briggs has one of his characters give this advice in the first volume of The Adventures of Harry Franco:
When you sit down at a table, always look at the salt first; you will find it a sure index of the quality of the fare, nine times out of ten. Never knew it to fail. Now look at this, ain't it a gem? none of your finical flutings and notchings about it; but a piece of plain unpretending glass, polished like a diamond. How nicely it is filled, how smooth and white on its surface: it looks like a piece of alabaster inserted in a crystal. How fine and spotless! look, it scarce touches the steak before it is dissolved; not a particle of it will grate against your teeth, but its delicate flavor will gratify your palate without your being at all aware that you owe an exquisite enjoyment to so common an article as salt. See, the little heap on the side of your plate looks like a snow flake just fallen.
The modern bibliography on open salts is small. (Let me
correct myself. Check this page,
which I discovered after I wrote this article.) The best
known, even classic, work is 5000 Open Salts, A Collector's
Guide (1982), by William Heacock and Patricia Johnson
The modern bibliography on open salts is small. (Let me correct myself. Check this page, which I discovered after I wrote this article.) The best known, even classic, work is 5000 Open Salts, A Collector's Guide (1982), by William Heacock and Patricia Johnson. Heacock was an authority on glass produced in the United States, and his area of expertise shaped this magnificent book. To tell the truth, however, it takes someone with eyes much sharper than mine to match a stray salt to one of the many illustrations. A sad note: both the authors died early. Let's wish a happier fortune for Sandra Jzyk and Nina Robertson, whose Open Salt Compendium appeared last year.
Although "salts" were made in many materials, glass seems to have been the favorite, as discussed in the article "Open Glass Salts," by Adele Kenny. So, it is not long until many a collector of open salts comes in need of the Glass Encyclopedia, although it is not specifically of interest to collectors of open salts, but that is appropriate. Most open salts are "cross-collectable." That is, they appeal to collectors of various interests--not just of open salts but also of pewter, sandwich glass, or silver. Then, there is the option of figurals. If you wanted to eat your salt out of the back of a swan or the nest of a (removable) hen, you were in luck. I guess I was traumatized by a 1950's cream pitcher that left me believing that cream was a liquid regurgitated from the mouth of a cow so that I don't want animals on my dining table - well, for eating, not for serving.
Almost any antique or junque shop you enter will have a salt or
two or three hundred tucked away somewhere... and then there is the 900
ton (or gigabyte) gorilla of collecting, eBay.
On any given day, you can find about a thousand open
salts on eBay. About fifty items down, you drop below twenty-five
dollars, and most salts are even cheaper.
That's the first of my reasons for offering open salts as nearly perfect collectibles. The second is that, just as we don't have much money these days, neither do we have much space. Here you can see an assortment of nine of my salts cozy on a CD case.
Before we go much further, perhaps I should explain what happened to open salts. Progress, again. Salt was not always the predictable, homogenous product that it now is. It was caked, messy, didn't always pour when it rained, and so, in 1914 (the year Georgia's own Bert Parks was born), when the Morton Salt Company could proclaim that its salt resisted the vagaries of the weather, it did so proclaim, loudly, memorably and with a little girl carrying an umbrella... even to this day, although the radical innovation of the slogan--"When it rains, it pours"-- may now be lost on us.
So, now, those of us who still find something to cherish about open salts are left languishing in a sort of decadence. Oh, well, here is a little gallery of some photos of my treasures, with hopes that some of their appeal will shine through.
Side view (profile) and top view of five salts, showing another facet of their charm... their diversity!
Not all salts are round.
Look at these squares and rectangles
as well as the hexagon
(fourth in row, left) .
(Above) An assortment of my salts,
none of any great value.
Another of my open salts, which would appeal not only to collectors of open salts but also to anyone who likes beautiful things.
Learn more about
the photo cube.
(Three photos below)
Top and bottom views
The photography session was unexpectedly interrupted. As I well know, among parrots, patience is a necessity, not a virtue, and Dory, the R&R parrot, suddenly decided more time than was necessary or virtuous had been spent photographing little bits of glass when, as he would say, there's a pretty bird much more deserving of photo-documentation.
Life is salted with irony, I suppose, since for about half my life I have been "watching my salt" in an ongoing struggle with hypertension. Now, I rave about the beauty of salt dishes. Mine, displayed close at hand on trays, because for me there is a pleasure in handling them, are never touched by salt, however, just occasionally by a vitamin tablet.
Many folks might fail to appreciate the attraction of these little treasures, say, folks who collect lunch boxes with pictures from television programs of the 1960's. Many of us seek to reclaim the fondest stories of our pasts with our collectibles. Just come along with me some time to a classic car show and look at all the muscle cars from the 1970's, lovingly preserved by gents whose muscles seem to have settled just above their belts.
There's nothing so obvious in the appeal of open salts. One reason I like to feel them is because they were used, and this use is reflected in the tiny nicks ('fleabites") and chips that many salts bear. Properly, salt was taken from the dish with a tiny spoon (which, nowadays, costs more than the dish) or the end of the knife blade (before it had been used); informally among family and friends, one could pinch the salt from the dish. So, these are some of the stories that my salts tell me:
Her sister's husband had collapsed at the table and had died before they could get him to his bedroom. Looking at the table, she began to move the dishes around, not really accomplishing anything. "Stop," her sister commanded from the door and then moved to the head of the table, where so soon before, her husband had enjoyed his last meal. Then, she looked at the salt dish. Very carefully, very carefully, she lifted the little square of glass and looked at the print of her husband's thumb, where he had pinched the salt. Then, she told her sister to open the cabinet, and very carefully, she set the dish on the highest shelf she could reach, closed the doors, and vowed that as long as she lived, the salt would not be disturbed.
"Oh, pappa!" she cajoled. "Now promise me. Tonight when Jonathan and his parents come to dinner, please, oh, please, use the spoon for the salt... and don't blow your nose into your napkin!"
appreciate open salts.
The family had only minutes to leave the house they had lived in all his life, that his family had lived in for generations. He ran through the dining room, looked at all the crystal that within an hour would be trampled under the invaders boots, and slipped a salt dish into his pocket.
Keep your feet (and salt) dry, your heart full of noble thoughts including gratitude for the beauty of simple things, the simplicity of beautiful things that may come into your life in the most unexpected ways. And, as Dory reminded me, don't let things become more important than friends, even if your friends wear feathers.
After writing this article, I sent notices about it to several e-mail addresses that I had found, including that of Ed and Kay Berg, the authors of the article "Open Salt Collecting," and they referred me to a website that I had missed: OpenSalts.info. (Wow, everything is up-to-date in open salts collecting. Notice that spiffy ".info" domain!) Lovingly maintained by Debi Raitz, this site links to seven open salts clubs, and is full of information on the history of salts, books about salts, and a link to the Salt Trader Quarterly!
Best of all is a chat room about salts, where one of the brightest celebs in the open salts world, Nina Robertson, who with Sandra Jzyk wrote The Open Salt Compendium, published last year, pops in and chats like a real person. Someone mentions spending almost five hundred dollars on a salt, while another recounts scouting out alleged salts at K-Mart! Gee, all this salty stuff is enough to make me thirsty (yep, California's best, again) so here's a toast to Ed and Kay for taking the time to tell me about this site, to Debi for maintaining it, and to various participants in the chat room who have answered my questions. I seem to meet the nicest people collecting open salts.
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