With its asymmetrical roof and restrained facade, the Saltbox house has become an icon of New England’s coastal areas. When Colonial-era families first developed the style, though, they weren’t aiming for aesthetic appeal. The Saltbox architectural style was born as an adaptation to the harsh realities of early Colonial life. Families learned to be inventive with their simple means, and it’s the creative simplicity of these houses that still earns them admiration today.
A Practical Solution for Growing Families
The Saltbox architectural style first appeared in New England and Atlantic Canada around 1650, in the earliest years of the Colonial Period. Faced with a harsh climate and limited resources, settlers opted for modest, sensible homes. First came the symmetrical two-story houses in what would later become known as the Cape Cod style. The Saltbox is an adaptation of this style.
With 10 to 15 people sharing a single house and limited means to build anything new, settlers needed low-cost ways to add more living space to their existing homes. One way they accomplished this was by building a single-story lean-to onto the back of their house. This expanded the floor space, but saved on material. Instead of building a whole new roof, the homeowners extended the existing roof down over the new lean-to addition.
It’s this adaptation that gives Saltbox homes their distinctive lopsided shape. The style takes its name from the slanted lids of the saltboxes colonists hung on their walls. At the time, salt was hard to come by and valuable enough to merit display in decorative wooden boxes.
Some homeowners used all the space in their new addition for storage. Because many Saltbox homes started as just one room deep, though, families often maximized the additional space by dividing it into three rooms. The center was typically turned into extra cooking space or a “keeping room,” a stove-heated space beside the kitchen where families slept in winter. The spaces on either side were often turned into a pantry and a “borning room” used for childbirth and illness.
What started out of sheer practicality soon caught on, and by 1680 the Saltbox was an architectural style in its own right. New Englanders began building their homes with the lean-to addition and slanted roof included right from the start. The charmingly whimsical shape was only part of the appeal, though.
The Saltbox’s rectangular foundation makes it easy to built and add onto later. The steep roof provides excellent drainage, letting the area’s heavy snowfall slide right off. The central fireplace and low ceilings keep the interior evenly cozy throughout the long, cold winters. The small leftover triangle of space under the addition’s roof acts as another barrier against the cold. On the exterior, the unpainted wood siding required only minimal upkeep, which cut down on the colonists’ already burdensome workloads.
One popular bit of folklore suggests the Saltbox architectural style really came into its own thanks to Queen Anne’s taxation of homes higher than one story. In reality, it’s unlikely this law had as much influence as the style’s other practical benefits.
New Englanders remained the biggest fans of Saltbox architecture, but the style managed to gain some interested in nearly every corner of the country. Architects even borrowed this modest home style for public and commercial buildings. The Saltbox’s popularity outside New England dropped off around 1800, but didn’t see much decline within New England until the late 1830s.
During the Colonial Revival period between 1900 and 1950, Saltbox and other Cape Cod-style houses saw another slight uptick. These days, they’re something of a novelty, but the style has endured thanks to its attractive minimalism and functionality.
Modest Features Under a Distinctive Roof
As rectangular buildings with high-pitched roofs and unadorned central entrances, Saltbox houses are in many ways similar to Cape Cod houses. What sets the Saltbox architectural style apart is the rear single-story addition and the asymmetrical roofline it creates. Look for this feature and you can tell a Saltbox at a glance.
From the top, the roof starts like any gable-style roof that slopes down from a central ridge. Instead of sloping down to the same length, though, one side slopes much farther to cover the addition and reaches below the height of the eaves on the other side. This longer slope is known as a “catslide.” On some homes, the lower edge of the catslide is less than six feet off the ground.
On traditional Saltbox homes where the rear one-story space was added after the main two-story house was built, you might spot a break in the roof angle and a line on the side of the house where the old back wall used to be.
A broken roofline isn’t always a tell-tale sign, though. Some builders intentionally designed the main two-story section with a low or steeply pitched roof, then changed the roofline over the rear one-story space to provide enough ceiling height. This creates a break even though both parts of the house were built at the same time.
Most original Saltbox homes were built using the timber framing construction method. This method uses traditional wood joinery, making it more economical than relying on metal nails, bolts, and other fasteners, which were costly at the time.
A large central chimney is a classic look for Saltbox homes, but you’ll also find a minority fit with a pair of smaller end chimneys. As with many Colonial-style homes, Saltboxes often feature double-hung windows with four- or six-light window sashes. A rectangular transom window over the entrance for ventilation and light is more particular to Saltbox houses specifically. Beyond this, the facade is adorned only with minimal, understated trim.
In modern and restored older Saltbox homes, the rear addition is usually no longer divided into three rooms. Instead, it’s incorporated into a contemporary open floor plan to create a sense of spaciousness and flow.
Narrow clapboard or shingle siding is the most common cladding for traditional Saltboxes. On the original homes, the siding was left to weather to a natural grayish brown. Today, most Saltbox exteriors are stained, while others are painted white or a subdued shade of brown, grey, red, or yellow.
The appeal of the Saltbox architectural style goes well beyond its looks. The design is a testament to the resourcefulness of Colonial-era families and a practical approach to staying comfortable in New England’s challenging climate.