Guadalest Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
Social Anthropology….Or Just a Wacky Obsession!
The next time you knock over a salt cellar and throw a pinch of the salt that spills over your left shoulder to ward off bad luck, bear in mind that those few white grains would at one time have formed part of someone’s wages. And besides, that thing with the holes in the top is called a salt shaker, not a salt cellar.
It’s amazing the things you learn when you least expect it. I’m getting an in-depth lecture about the world of salt, salt and pepper shakers, and salt cellars from Andrea Ludden and her son Alex, at their delightfully idiosyncratic Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Guadalest. And jolly interesting it is.
“Salt is much more important in our lives and history than most people think,” says Alex. “The word salarium, salary, comes from the fact that Roman soldiers were paid part of their income in salt. It’s also thought that the word ‘soldier’ itself comes from the Latin sal dare, to give salt. If you look at common phrases such as ‘the salt of the earth’, he’s not worth his salt’, ‘below the salt’, etc. you can get an idea of how important salt was.” And it still is, because without salt in our diet we couldn’t survive.
Far from being just a wacky Belgian lady with a fetish for salt shakers, Andrea’s collection began from a totally different direction than something simply to display on the shelves in her kitchen. As an archaeologist she had spent many years working in South America, where her main interest had been in how people travelled and communicated.
“The salt trade was of major importance, not only because of its commercial value but also because it allowed foods to be preserved, letting people travel much greater distances than they could without having preserved foods, never knowing what fresh foods would be available,” Andrea tells me. “But pepper was also important, and records show that when the Gauls invade Rome they demanded twenty thousand pounds of pepper as part of the ransom.”
As we wander around the museum I find it hard to believe that the twenty-thousand pair display of fat chefs, ruby red tomatoes, guardsmen in bear skins, The Beatles, Santa’s feet sticking out of a chimney, pistols and potatoes, a copy of the salt and pepper shaker cufflinks that Lady Diana wore, (which, fortunately, are sealed, or their contents would have sprayed everywhere when she shook hands), have any other reason for coming together than simply being someone’s idea of being collectable – but they do.
“When we moved to the States there was no work in archaeology so I began to look at social anthropology,” continues Andrea. It’s often by looking at the apparently more mundane articles in everyday life that you can build up a broad picture of a specific period. And that’s what Andrea began to do.
“There’s almost nothing you can imagine that hasn’t been copied as a salt and pepper shaker, and many of them reflect the designs, the colours, the preoccupations of the period. For example, a cooker from the 1940’s will look totally different from the cookers of the 1990’s, and it’s through using these differences and the materials they were made of that we can get an idea of how people lived at any given time.”
It wasn’t until the 1920’s, when Chicago-based Morton Salt added magnesium carbonate to their product, that it was possible to pour salt from a sealed container. From this moment the salt shaker was born. Prior to that, small bowls or containers, usually with a spoon, had been used at the table, (the original salt cellar), as salt has a tendency to attract moisture and become lumpy.
“Morton’s development was the beginning of the salt shaker, but funnily enough, it was the automobile that lead to them becoming collectable items,” continues Alex. “It was because people could travel more freely, either for work or on vacation, that the souvenir industry came about. Salt and pepper shakers were cheap, easy to carry and colourful and made ideal gifts. Imagine you lived in an isolated village somewhere and your son or daughter brought you a set in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge when they came on their annual visit home. It wouldn’t get used, it would be carefully kept as a decorative item. That’s how, in the main, many of the early collections began.”
The hey-day of salt and pepper shaker production was between the 1920s and 60s, with those made from plastic in the 50s and 60s being of special interest to some people. “Plastic is breakable, so fewer of those examples exist, and there are specialist collectors that pay highly for models from that period.” But the world of salt and pepper shakers and cellars knows no boundaries; from the Cellini Saliera, cast in solid gold (and sometimes referred to as the ‘Mona Lisa of Sculpture’), insured for $60million, to the prosaic plastic red pepper, a steal at only 75 centimos at the local Chinese shop, there’s something for everyone.
Andrea’s collection of over forty thousand pairs, half in Guadalest and half in their museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, stared by the simple purchase of a pepper mill at a garage sale, shortly after the family moved to the US – but it didn’t work!
“That first one didn’t work, so I bought a couple more. I used to stand them on the window ledge of my kitchen, and neighbours thought I was building a collection. Nothing could have been further from my mind! They began to bring me some beautiful ones, and eventually I had about 14,000 on shelves all over the house, even in the bedrooms. One day my husband said, “Andrea, you either find somewhere to put these things or it’s a divorce!” So we decided to create a museum.”
Some of the best museums I’ve come across have come about because of someone’s wish to show their collection to the world; the unique Playing Card Museum in Oropesa, the Shoe Museum in Elda, the curious travelling collection of potties from Torremolinos. “I think a museum like ours is different from a big municipal institution because it deals with things on a very personal basis. Even though there are so many shakers, you begin to recognise ones your grandmother used to have, or you saw when you went on vacation somewhere, or you gave as a gift once. People come back over and over again and think that we are adding to the displays, but we aren’t, it’s just that they didn’t see them first time around.”
Displaying the almost endless selection of models in no mean feat, but Andrea has an excellent eye for how it should be done. “It’s almost impossible to categorise them, because you can work by style, age, subject matter, colour etc, but I try and do it to combine all these elements at the same time. I have a very visual memory, and I can walk into an antique shop or go to a garage sale and know instantly if I see one for sale that I have in the collection or not, even if it is just the salt or pepper shaker and not a pair.
And will the collection ever end? “Never! It’s the hunt I love, the hope that I’ll find something different, something special. And ‘special’ doesn’t necessarily mean the most ornate or the most expensive, it can be something quite simple that I fall in love with the moment I see it.”
So the next time you see a museum that’s full of the weird and wonderful, don’t immediately think, “What on earth is someone collecting this lot for?” because it might be yet another delve into social anthropology and not someone’s bizarre obsession – but there again, it just might!
Museo de Saleros y Pimenteros (Museum of Salt and Pepper Shakers) Avenida de Alicante 2, Guadalest, Alicante. (Next to the Tourist Office) Open daily 10.30am-7.30pm. Entrance €3, children under 12 free. There is also a Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, USA.
Recommended hotel in Guadalest: Cases Noves.