The saltbox house first appeared in the New England area of the United States in approximately 1650. It consisted of a roof line that was high and gabled in the front of the house and low and sloping at the rear. The interior of the home consisted of multiple levels facing the front under the high roof line and one level at the rear, underneath the low slope. A prominent example of the saltbox house is the birthplace of John Quincy Adams, second president of the United States, in Quincy, Mass.
Origin of the Saltbox Design
In 1500s England, the saltbox design for a house grew out of the needs of a growing family. Originally a multiple-level, rectangular design capped with a gable roof, the house expanded as families grew. The easiest way to accomplish this was to extend the rear of the house, where most property had the extra land, and to slope the roof downward to cap a single level addition. English settlers arriving in the newly formed Americas adapted the design and followed the growing family deviation in their original home design.
Why is it Called a Saltbox?
In old England and new America, salt was a valuable commodity used for flavoring and as a food preservative. Dampness caused the salt to clump. To keep the salt granular, wooden boxes were designed to hang on the wall near the fireplace, ensuring that the salt would be continually dry. The lids of the salt boxes were low, sloping, hinged wooden flaps; hence, the name saltbox for a home that grew out of a utilitarian design.
How to Identify an Original Saltbox Home
An original, rectangular house with an equal sided, pitched gable roof, not unlike a plastic Monopoly hotel, is the base for a saltbox house. You know you're looking at a saltbox if the house has a roof line that is equal in front and back, with a long, low slope in the rear that you can visually verify as an addition. As the demand grew for the style, homeowners constructed new homes in the saltbox design. Many of these houses did not have an equal-sided gable roof leading to the sloped roof.
The Purpose of the Sloping Roofline
In addition to being a simple way to extend a home, a saltbox roof protected the house from the elements. Often facing north, where the strongest winds originate, the design allowed the harsh winter wind to slide upward over the roof line and away from the house.
Defining Characteristics of a Saltbox House
A saltbox house has a flat front with a central entry door and an equal-sided gable roof. Multi-paned windows frame the front door. A central fireplace or a set of end fireplaces provide heat. The house originally consisted of one large room on the ground level. The one-level addition to the rear of the home provided space for a separate kitchen, storage area and an additional sleeping or birthing room when climbing the stairs to the sleeping level wasn't possible.
- Library of Congress; Prints and Photographs Reading Room: Saltbox Houses in the Historic American Building Survey; Marilyn Ibach; January 2002
- CNN Money; Life in a Saltbox; Les Christie; January 2006
- Historic House Blog; Why Do They Call It A Salt Box?; January 2009
- Old House Web: Saltbox, 1650-1830