I got hooked on salt and pepper shakers in the mid-1980s, after a visit to the NBC Store with my cousin, Roger. My first set was Nipper and his gramophone ("His Master's Voice"), and while I knew Nipper was but a lowly reproduction, I was in love.
Consider that my burgeoning collection took form in the pre-internet days — meaning there was no eBay. In the olden days, people went to flea markets and antique fairs to hunt for treasures and looking back, it was actually much more fun than bidding online. I made a huge score on what I imagined was some dear old lady's shaker collection at an antique store in Bordentown, New Jersey and the shop owner was surprisingly reluctant to sell them to me. He assumed I was a dealer (antiques, not drugs). I assured him that I really did want the shakers for my own collection — I was just one of those kooks who was one step away from hoarding. And in the mid-1990s, salt and pepper shakers were affordable; maybe $3-$7 a pair, so you'd still have money left over for matchbooks and Fiestaware.
I could have focused my collection on a theme — lcute froggies, for instance — or only hunted down shakers with the Occupied Japan stamp on the bottom. Some people just collect plastic and celluloid and others look for solely anthropomorphic sets. And of course, there are lots of collectors who seek out those creepy racist mammy and pappy shakers. My only stipulation was that they were original and not reproductions, though I did grow partial to fruits and vegetables with faces. I think I was afraid of who would buy them because they were "funny" or "cute" so I decided instead to rescue them myself.
The problem with collecting shakers is that you need the real estate to display them and they require frequent cleaning. Both were concerns, since I pretty quickly ran out of space in my small Manhattan apartment and am, admittedly, not a great housekeeper. I'd built custom shelves just for my little guys, but filled them up quickly and watched them grow increasingly dustier (next time, glass doors). And pretty soon, people start giving you shakers as gifts, which sounds nice, but basically means that before you know it, you end up with a lot of cute froggies.
Some of my shakers now live in upstate New York and get to see sunlight and mountains a lot more than I do. Others still occupy their original home in the city and today, most are relatively dust-free (they've all just had their annual kitchen sink bath). We've suffered a few casualties over the years; two decapitations and a busted leg (the shakers, not me — I still have my original head, thank you very much). I don't actively collect anymore since I really, really don't have space at this point — and honestly, the thrill was gone once eBay made the whole thing way too easy. I worry about becoming one of those people whose collection sort of takes over their home as well as their better judgement. So I moved on to bottle caps (smaller) and then Mexican crosses, although a house full of crosses seems to make some people uncomfortable.
There's a new item that I've got my eye on these days, so we'll see if 10 soon blossom into 100. I guess in the end, I do things obsessively — again and again, until I get it right, or grow bored— whichever comes first. And then it's on to the next conquest.