A saltbox is a one-and-a-half or two story house that has been expanded with a one-story addition, also called a “lean-to,” in the rear of the house. The addition most often houses a kitchen, or “keeping room” in the center, and two small rooms on either end- one a “buttery” or pantry for storage, and the other a “borning room” for childbirth or illness (when getting up and down stairs to the other bed chambers might be difficult). Pictured at left is one of New England’s more famous saltboxes- the birthplace of John Adams in Quincy, Mass., now part of the Adams Historic Park.
The saltbox style originated in England in the 16th century, where the buildings were called “outshot” houses. In the 1650s, well-established English settlers in New England needed more space for growing families. They turned to the “outshot” style familiar from mother England to expand their houses into what are now called saltboxes.
As the diagrams show, the addition also often included a small, short extra space on the second floor. This space was generally used for storage, but it was also frequently used as a sleeping area for the children. The long, low pitch of the back of the roof was, where possible, planned to face North, to partially deflect the blowing snow and rain that frequently came along with the North wind.
By the early 1700s, the design was seen as so successful, and so fitting the needs of the settlers in the Northeast, that builders began to build Saltbox houses with the addition built right into the original design. One way of determining if the addition was built as part of the original structure, although there are many exceptions, is to check the roofline. In the diagrams above, the roof changes pitch where the lean-to was added on. In the photo to the right, the roof has one pitch all the way down. This is the Peletiah Leete House in Guilford, CT. It was built in 1765 with the lean-to already added. (This spectacular museum-quality house is currently for sale).
So why is it called a saltbox ? Salt was necessary for preserving food, and so it was a valuable commodity in colonial America. Salt was expensive, and it caked-up easily. To prevent this, special saltboxes were designed that were supposed to be hung by the hearth to keep the salt dried out. The lean-to on the house bore a substantial resemblance to the saltbox on the hearth, and thus the name for the style was born.
The Saltbox style fell out of fashion around Boston by about 1750, and the last saltboxes were built out on the farms in the country in the first few years of the 1800s. The style did make appearances elsewhere- on Long Island, parts of New Jersey, and Nova Scotia, and there are even a couple of examples from Ohio built by emigrants from New England. In the South, the “catslide house”- a modified version of the Saltbox with a very steep roof was popular from the mid-18th century through the mid-19th century. Check this story out for one couple’s efforts to restore a Maryland catslide.