Saltbox Houses Are Quaint and Classic—Learn Their History and Characteristics

The oldest saltbox house on Cape Cod, with a steeply bitched brown root and brick chimney with vivid green grass and an old oak tree

KenWiedemann / Getty Images

You may have never seen an original saltbox house in person unless you live in New England, but you have likely seen their simplistic charm in paintings and photographs that have captured the cozy essence of the Northeast and its colonial past. But while this unique style of home began in the colonies, many modern architects have taken inspiration from its design to create new-age homes with the traditional layout.

These classic American homes are characterized by their steep-pitched roofs, which slope down the back of the house at a sharp angle. Because of their shape and layout, saltbox houses feature two stories in the front, but only one in the back. Original designs incorporate traditional characteristics like exposed wood ceiling beams and large fireplaces, while modern variations often feature sleek, angular architectural lines and minimalistic interiors.

If you've ever wondered what these beautiful homes look like inside, where their history started, or what their features are, keep reading to learn the ins and outs of saltbox houses.

Saltbox House

A saltbox house is a 17th and 18th century-style home named after commonly used wooden salt containers from that period. Historic saltbox houses are easily identified by their signature one-sided sloped rooflines and simple colonial facades.

What Makes a House Saltbox-Style?

updated saltbox style home

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Saltbox homes are easily recognizable thanks to their unique roof shape and architecture. If you were to look at one from the front, you could easily mistake it for a Colonial-style home—but view it from the side, and you'll quickly realize that this design is unlike any other.

An easy way to remember the saltbox style is that it resembles an asymmetrical A-frame home turned to the side. These houses feature practical gabled roofs, but the shape of the roof and lack of dormer windows distinguish these homes from Cape Cods, Colonials, and other historic designs.

The angular roof style of saltbox homes is also commonly referred to as a catslide roof, describing a design in which the roof itself extends below past the home's eaves. This is particularly helpful to ensure proper drainage, allowing melting snow to slide easily off the roof and avoid pooling up at the home's foundation. Colonial saltbox houses were constructed with timber framing due to the cost of metal nails, and typically featured a flat front exterior wall and central chimney.

Here are a few common features of traditional saltbox homes:

Exterior

  • Asymmetrical gabled roof
  • Lean-to addition in the home's rear
  • Symmetrical front windows
  • Central front door and chimney

Interior

  • Great Room entrance (commonly used as living room)
  • Rear kitchen
  • Exposed ceiling beams
  • Stone or brick fireplace

The History of Saltbox-Style Houses

history of saltbox houses

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Original saltbox houses were built not long after the first Europeans arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 and remained popular through the 19th century. As they became popular in New England, the style also spread to parts of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. In Massachusetts, a famous original saltbox home is still standing as a museum—the birthplace of second U.S. President John Adams.

Saltbox houses are named after the wooden salt boxes used in colonial kitchens. Even though they’re simple in design, their one-sided sloped rooflines, central brick chimneys, and plain facades make them instantly recognizable icons, and those defining features were not even part of the original design.

The original saltboxes began as simple two-story dwellings, with one room on each story and a central fireplace running throughout to keep the entire house warm. Since it would still be a few more centuries before electricity was invented, saltboxes had thickly framed, strategically placed windows.

The house’s footprint was often oriented specifically to ensure each room would receive the maximum possible amount of sunlight through its windows. 

Many colonial homes were designed with a simple layout that left space to build additions. Since the settlers' wealth and family sizes were consistently growing, it was important to have the option to add more space as time went on. As some colonists began to need more room, they built simple lean-to additions to the backs of their homes, which left one side of the house with a long, steeply-pitched roof. Eventually, the look caught on, and soon these additions became a permanent part of the design.

The unevenly sloped roof (though unintentional) ended up being a godsend to New Englanders who, winter after winter, had their homes buried in heavy snow. The pitch allowed snow to melt more quickly in the sun, and it helped deflect the brutal winds that are common in the region.

While saltbox houses are still in style, it can be harder to find an original structure compared to its more common counterparts like Cape Cods and Colonials. Newer saltbox builds are much easier to purchase in the 21st century—and you'll find that recent designs often take on more modern architecture (both inside and out) than their colonial ancestors.

What Are the Different Types of Saltbox Houses?

Saltbox homes are still popular today, and the style has even been adapted by many new-age architects. Whether you're in the market for a historic, traditional-inspired design or a sleek, angular modern space, the saltbox layout can be used for a variety of different home types.

Traditional Saltbox Homes

traditional saltbox style home

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Though few original saltbox houses still stand, you can still find them dotting the bucolic New England countryside—some as private residences, and some as registered historic sites where the homes have been restored to function as museums.

The architecture of traditional and modern saltbox homes is similar, but there are a few defining characteristics of the original structures. Colonial builds often featured exposed wood ceiling beams thanks to the simplicity of their design, which adds a beautiful rustic touch to today's well-maintained historic homes. Since early saltbox homes predated electricity, the fireplace was designed at the center of the home in order to radiate heat throughout each room. You'll likely find a large fireplace made of stone or brick for wood-burning fires.

Another common feature of the early homes is their layout: Residents and guests typically entered into the great room, which served as the family's living space or den. The kitchen was placed directly behind it to remain a central focus as a regularly-used space. (As the old saying goes, "The kitchen is the heart of the home.")

Like other colonial homes, saltbox homes featured wood flooring in a thick-cut style. The wider planks were thanks to the abundance of mature trees in dense forests. Although the same species of trees are used in hardwood floors today, the planks are usually much thinner as the trees are harvested at a younger age.

Modern Saltbox Homes

modern saltbox style home

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There are also contemporary adaptations of saltbox homes that appeal to history buffs and modernists alike. Since they’re designed like boxes, their sleek, angular lines, brightly lit windows, and open spaces present nearly limitless possibilities when it comes to dressing up the interior—a blank canvas that can become anything you want it to be, with a little historic flair.

The angular style of historic saltbox homes has influenced architecture for generations. Today, many new-age homes have similar styles with updated features. Modern saltbox-style homes often have sleek, minimalistic exteriors, and can be designed with traditional layouts or new variations on the colonial style. The exteriors of new saltbox-style homes also reflect the style of modern times: Many are designed with vertical siding, and feature materials like vinyl, fiber cement, or even corrugated metal to protect the structure from harsh weather.

Many updated saltbox homes and modern builds also feature today's tongue-and-groove hardwood flooring, which uses thinner boards in an offset pattern that fits almost seamlessly together. The floors are polished for a sleek, easy-to-clean surface. Polished hardwood floors became popular in the late 19th century, so it's not uncommon to find familiar flooring in newer styles.

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