Saltbox Houses Are So Quaint and Classic—Learn About 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

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You’ve likely never seen a saltbox house in person unless you live in New England, but you have definitely seen their simplistic charm in paintings and photographs that have captured the cozy essence of the Northeast and its pre-Colonial past.

What Is a 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.

The History of a Saltbox House

The first saltbox houses were built not long after the first Europeans arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 and remained popular through the 19th century. Saltbox houses are named after—you guessed it—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.

Characteristics and Architectural Features

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 that would flood every floor with light.

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

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 helped deflect the brutal winds that are common in the region.

Saltbox house modern day.

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Where to Find a Saltbox House

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.

There are also contemporary adaptations that appeal to history buffs and modernists alike. Since they’re designed like, well, boxes, its sleek, angular lines, brightly-lit windows, and open spaces present nearly limitless possibility 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.

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