Mid-century Shakers

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The fifties may have been a conservative time in many respects, but there were two areas in which America went wild in that mid-century decade: design and consumerism. And in an odd way, the seemingly humble tabletop objects on the right were the perfect confluence of those two currents.

The country had weathered the economic constraints of the Great Depression and the physical and emotional trauma of World War II—twenty years of tense, olive drab existence. Now the economy was booming, and Johnny had come marching home to a house in the suburbs that he and Mrs. Johnny were filling with boomerang-shaped furniture, atomic-patterned drapes, Gay Paree poodle wallpaper in the “powder room,” and, in the kitchen, every conceivable shiny new, modern, laborsaving device.

For the kitchen of the fifties was the shrine in a temple of sunny materialism. Considerably larger than the cramped kitchens of the thirties and forties, it was seen as both a center of household togetherness (a catchword of the time) and a laboratory stocked with sleek machines for living. There were the basics: the large white-enameled range, the capacious avocado-colored refrigerator bright with chrome; the built-in dishwasher. Then there were smaller appliances to ease the effort involved in every culinary and cleaning task: electric coffee percolators, Mixmasters, Waring and Osterizer blenders, juicers, waffle irons, streamlined pop-up toasters, not to mention barbecue grills, rotisseries, updated vacuum cleaners and irons, washing machines and dryers.

These objects became icons of the postwar prosperity and technological progress. No wonder, then, that when manufacturers sought appropriate symbols to be miniaturized into various novelty items, they settled on appliances, confident that the little fixtures would appeal both to those who could afford the real thing and those who coveted it. In fact, some of the plastic salt and pepper shakers in this category were produced as advertising premiums by such firms as Tappan, Westinghouse, Hamilton Beach, Mixmaster, and Filter Queen. Many of these giveaways were made by the F&F Mold and Die Works of Dayton, Ohio.

The little fixtures appealed to both those who could afford the real things and those who coveted them.

Prized by today’s collectors, some of these plastic artifacts were wonderfully ingenious at concealing the actual seasoning receptacles. Several of the miniature mixers, for example, were constructed with shakers for beaters. A pop-up toaster ejected two slices of toast, the white one for salt, the brown for pepper. Perhaps the kitschiest of all was the rotisserie oven with imitation chrome sides and a see-through door, inside which were two shakers in the form of chickens, one cooked, the other raw.

Salt shakers had existed for less than a century before this explosion into whimsical forms. Until John Mason invented his breakthrough screw-top jar in 1858, salt, always a precious commodity, had been served in a variety of special dishes, known by such names as standing salts (the oldest form, these stood before the person at the head of the table), large trencher salts and salt dips, salt cups, salt cellars (small open dishes set at each diner’s place), and finally the salt shaker, which found its pepper partner during the Civil War era, when two small cylinders fitted with metal lids were patented. That signaled a proliferation of shakers in glass and fine china, ranging from the simplest designs to elaborately patterned and painted ones. It wasn’t long before novelty forms entered the picture; at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, a local glass firm provided shakers in the form of the Liberty Bell, which was followed by a glass menagerie of rabbits, squirrels, owls, and ducks.

When cheap synthetic plastics became pandemic on the domestic landscape after World War II, they provided the perfect material for what were then considered almost throwaway novelty items. Not surprisingly the popularity of these model appliances lasted only as long as the machines they signified were tokens of prosperity to come. By the mid-1960s blenders and coffeemakers and stainless steel frying pans had become part of the furniture of workaday life, and the vogue dwindled away.

Their designers and manufacturers expected the appeal of these salt-and-pepper shakers to be evanescent, and they surely would have been bewildered by the collectible value the small appliances gained over the years, as they shifted from being portents of a bright future to mementos of the naive yearnings of another era.