Salt cellars or pots have been around as long as humans have been using and storing salt which goes back into history. They really lasted until the First World War when free-flowing salt was perfected and shakers replaced containers.
Making them out of silver was always a poor choice, as Phil says, but the urge to bling rather than common sense prevailed from Tudor times until today and probably before.
Because historically being seated above or below the salt dictated your status as a guest, 16th-century salts became elaborate iconic tableware. These examples rarely come up at auction and demand fabulous prices if they do.
They are the exception. Salt pots were placed by each place-setting from the 17th century forward. And examples of these hexagonal or oblong pots by Wood and others are readily available and only slightly premiumed and very collectible. They are sometimes later fitted with glass inserts and sometimes gilded. But beware of the non-lemon colored Victorian electroplating gilt work on these items. It is a later edition.
These early place pots with no feet were followed in the early 18th century by footed salts often with mythical hoofs or shells for feet decoration. The Hennells mass-produced these delightful objects and you can tell how rich the customer was by the size and weight of the pot. Again glass inserts are often later added or contemporary or later gilding.
It wasn’t until the 19th century when silver started to become cheaper to acquire, and machinery assisted much of the making that pots got really elaborate and huge. Anywhere from the 1820’s to the 1860’s wonderful elaborate pots were made in every conceivable shape from shells to classic Greek.
A word about the fire gilding or lost mercury gilding process: it probably accounted for the early demise of more silversmiths than anything else they did. We know it killed Charles Hougham in 1793. He was the brother of Solomon Hougham, another prominent silversmith of the time. But there were many others who breathed in the mercury vapours. We didn’t stop using the lost-mercury system because of the health hazards, indeed it was prescribed for STD’s by Victorian doctors and probably killed Winston Churchill’s father, Randolph – it certainly drove him mad. It was the cheapness and effectiveness of the catalyst or plating system that replaced it. But avoid it on your salts if they are pre 1835.
Glass inserts are less problematic. The vast majority of pre-20th century salts with plain or cobalt glass are carrying replacements or after-acquired glasses. Original glass is often cut-starred on the base. This was done to assist size measurement rather then for decoration. The original blue or plain glass is completely different in weight and feel to the modern or 20th or 21st century replacements, thinner, clear evidence of hand finishing and generally lead or even sodium glass out of the Bristol, or Ravenscroft or even Vauxhall makers works. If you find some on auction or in a store even if it is chipped don’t replace it, it is as valuable to the collector as the silver container possibly even more so.
In the past year and currently several well known lifetime collectors of salts, or their heirs, have put their collections on the market. This has had the predictable effect on price and demand for quality. It has driven the market for top pieces upwards sharply as museums scramble to pick up items completing with modern collectors and it has cautioned the market for the flawed or worn pieces. If you are buying a footed item beware of push-in on the feet. It is very difficult to repair.
But there are bargains and thanks to internet auctions you can search globally for them and often spend more on shipping the item to you than acquiring it. This is a good thing if you have a keen eye.
Phil is quite right about corrosion but don’t let black spots and salt damage put you off a really decent item. Take it to a restorer or professional cleaner to halt the damage – black spots aren’t static-- but if you like it and the price is right buy it anyway. I recently picked up a set of six Sam Wood salts with exactly this problem out of a South Carolina auction. I spend more money shipping and cleaning them professionally than the purchase price and they are magnificent.