Salt boxes: Es­sen­tial yet rarely no­ticed

Rappahannock News - - RAWL • ANTIQUES - MICHELLE GALLER an­tiques.and.whim­

South­ern foods and salt are like hand and glove. There are many salty foods that are spe­cific to the moun­tain­ous South — coun­try ham, sour beans and sauer­kraut, to name a few. Salt played a large part in early Ap­palachian food preser­va­tion, since meats had to be salt-cured to last the win­ter, and cer­tain veg­eta­bles were pick­led to pre­serve them.

Luck­ily, for the Ap­palachian high­land folk who de­pended on salt, salt licks were com­mon in the moun­tains. The licks were a byprod­uct of an an­cient, un­touched sea called the Iape­tus Ocean (pre­dat­ing the At­lantic) be­neath the Ap­palachian Moun­tains. For mil­len­nia, an­i­mals had gath­ered around salt licks that were formed where the brine came bub­bling to the sur­face.

Leg­end has it that Mary Draper In­gles, an early set­tler in south­west Vir­ginia in the 1750s, was cap­tured from her set­tle­ment by the Shawnees. She and some other cap­tives were taken to the Kanawha River Val­ley, in what is now West Vir­ginia, where the salt licks were, and were forced to har­vest the salt. She fi­nally es­caped and in retelling her story, she told the Euro­pean set­tlers about the salt licks.

Hence, the be­gin­ning of the Ap­palachian salt in­dus­try. One of the long­est last­ing Ap­palachian salt mak­ers in West Vir­ginia, near where In­gles Draper lived, be­longs to the Dickinson fam­ily. In the early 1800s, Wil­liam Dickinson, of Bed­ford County, Vir­ginia had heard that peo­ple were boil­ing brine from springs for the re­sult­ing salt. He in­vested in “salt prop­er­ties” along the Kanawha River and founded the J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in 1817. Nes­tled in the Kanawha River Val­ley, just south­east of Charleston in the small town of Malden, the com­pany flour­ished and Malden be­came “the salt mak­ing cap­i­tal of the East.” His com­pany con­tin­ued mak­ing salt longer than the other salt pro­duc­ers in the re­gion. They ac­tu­ally con­tin­ued pro­duc­ing in­dus­trial salt into the 20th cen­tury.

To­day, two sev­en­th­gen­er­a­tion Dickinson de­scen­dants — Nancy Payne Bruns and her brother, Lewis Payne — rein­vented that sto­ried tra­di­tion. They re­al­ized that they could har­vest salt for culi­nary pur­poses and be­gan re­cap­tur­ing salt from the pristine 400 mil­lionyear-old an­cient sea be­low the Ap­palachian Moun­tains. The brine is evap­o­rated in spe­cial sun-houses and hand har­vested, to cre­ate a culi­nary, farm-to-ta­ble salt which is sold to restau­rants through­out the coun­try.

Back in the early days, though, the salt that was avail­able to many set­tlers was lump salt. Only af­ter pound­ing the lumps with mor­tar and pes­tle was free-flow­ing salt avail­able for culi­nary use. Since salt ab­sorbs mois­ture from the air, es­pe­cially in the damp, cool moun­tain weather, cooks kept it dry by stor­ing it in wooden salt boxes hung near the fire or stove.

By the 1800s, the prac­ti­cal colo­nial house­wife sus­pended a pat­terned and dec­o­rated cov­ered salt box on the wall to con­tain enough crys­tals for pre­serv­ing meat or as a gran­u­lar ex­tin­guisher for dous­ing a kitchen fire. The salt box was a sym­bol of hos­pi­tal­ity in Bri­tain, Ger­many and Ire­land. In colo­nial Amer­ica, it sug­gested a well-run and com­fort­able home. Like salt it­self, the box might not be no­tice­able, and yet it was es­sen­tial for cook­ing.

An­tique salt boxes may look sim­ple, but were typ­i­cally very well crafted. The col­lec­tor should take note of the qual­ity of the wood and joints, the hing­ing of the lid, the hanger, and the over­all fin­ish. Wooden salt boxes could be cov­ered with dec­o­ra­tive carv­ing or were painted, ve­neered, or left plain and the value is de­ter­mined by the paint or qual­ity of the de­sign, as well as the con­struc­tion.

Sa­muel L. Plank (18211900) was an Amish folk artist in Mif­flin County, Penn­syl­va­nia, who was known for his paint-dec­o­rated boxes and frak­tur. He first be­came known be­yond his com­mu­nity for the col­or­fully dec­o­rated salt boxes he made, signed and dated. Maybe a dozen or so of these have passed through dealer hands into folk art col­lec­tions. Al­though, one was fea­tured on the An­tiques Road­show, and ap­praised for $20,000, most Amer­i­can painted, wooden hang­ing salt boxes found at an­tique shows are priced at far less, gen­er­ally un­der $1,000. Re­cently sev­eral have sold at auc­tion for be­tween $125 to $500.

All through his­tory, the avail­abil­ity of salt has been a piv­otal part of civ­i­liza­tion. Salt has been revered as a sea­son­ing that adds depth and com­plex­ity to a va­ri­ety of culi­nary cre­ations and will likely fig­ure in many a de­li­cious Thanks­giv­ing meal.

Michelle Galler is an an­tiques dealer, de­sign con­sul­tant and real­tor based in Ge­orge­town. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in the town of Wash­ing­ton. You can con­tact her at an­tiques.and.whim­


Shenan­doah Val­ley, carved, mixed wood salt box from the late 19th or early 20th cen­tury. Lift­ing slant lid, chan­nel-carved di­a­monds and rays on box, and chip-carved de­signs to edges. Orig­i­nal dry nat­u­ral sur­face.


Sa­muel Plank be­came well-known for his in­tri­cately painted and carved salt-boxes. They have been ap­praised for up­wards of $20,000.

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