Before the invention of the salt shaker, salt was stored in bowls made of wood, glass or porcelain, called, salt cellars. These salt cellars were not merely vessels to hold salt in, but a status symbol. Salt cellars were created to represent works of art, and mirrored the importance of the salt they held.
Salt cellars were a vessel used to store salt until the invention of the salt shaker in 1858. The salt cellar was given to the head of the table at the beginning of a meal, and subsequently passed around the table in an almost ceremonious style. Where each guest sat at the table, in relation to the salt cellar, determined her status. Salt cellars were used at the table until World War II, until they were permanently replaced by salt shakers. While salt cellars are still used today, they have lost their symbolism as a status item, and are mainly used in the kitchen.
Because salt was so important throughout history, almost every culture has its own variation of a salt cellar. The main purpose of the salt cellar, other than holding the salt, was to prevent it from becoming ruined by moisture in the air. Before modern day moisture absorbents were invented, salt was not able to be ground, and was used in larger, crystallized forms.
Because salt cellars represented such an important part of social stature, they were rarely mundane objects at the table, as salt shakers have become in modern day society. They were made of expensive materials and designed as pieces of art. The artist Benvenuto Cellinni created a wrought silver salt cellar for the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I, which was more of a sculpture than a utilitarian item.
In 1858, a man named John Mason (who famously invented the mason jar) created a receptacle to hold salt that would evenly distribute it on food, by shaking it through several holes punched into a tin cap; the salt shaker was born. This invention also prevented the salt from becoming moist and caked. Today, even though the salt shaker has replaced the salt cellar on the table, salt cellars have been making a comeback. Many restaurants have replaced their shakers with small salt cellars, and home cooks are using salt cellars in the kitchen.
Salt cellars go by several names including, salt dishes, salt dips and open salts.