As a child growing up in Belgium, Andrea Ludden was fascinated by the little saltbox in her godmother’s kitchen. “She always gave me a little pinch of salt, and that was my ‘souvenir,’” says Ludden, 76.
Ludden, her husband Rolf, and children Alex and Andrea now own more than 20,000 of their own “souvenirs”—salt and pepper shaker sets in just about every shape, size and theme imaginable, which they display in their Museum of Salt & Pepper Shakers in Gatlinburg, Tenn. (pop. 3,382).
In the mid-1980s, when Andrea and Rolf, a jewelry designer from Argentina, moved to La Jolla, Calif., she started scouring flea markets and garage sales in search of a durable pepper mill to season their food.
None of the contraptions seemed to work properly so Andrea set them
on her windowsill along with a few salt shakers she’d bought because of their creative designs. “My friends and neighbors believed I was collecting salt and pepper shakers, so everybody came in with bags of them,” she recalls.
As her dispenser collection grew, Andrea’s passion spilled over to her family. “We would walk around [flea markets] and look for pepper mills,” says daughter Andrea, 38. “It was kind of like a scavenger hunt.”
For her mother, an archaeologist with a love for anthropology, studying containers that dispense salt and pepper is a way to study human culture. “You can trace the ’20s, the ’40s, the ’60s, and you can see how things and people change,” the elder Andrea says. “When you see the changes in color, in texture, in what people consume, you open another door on the world.”
By 2001, the Luddens’ collection had outgrown their basement, and the family set out for Tennessee to open a salt and pepper shaker museum in Cosby (pop. 5,201). In 2005, they moved 30 miles south to Gatlinburg and began displaying their dispensers in a 3,200-square-foot, chalet-style building.
The museum is a family project. Mother Andrea is curator and collector; Rolf, 71, builds the storage shelves; Alex, 56, maintains the museum’s website, and his sister Andrea handles publicity, which led to coverage in 2006 on the Food Network’s Unwrapped show.
Their dispensers are fashioned from all types of materials—animal horns, eggshells, glass, plastic, porcelain and wood—and range from elegant to wacky. Shakers shaped like dachshunds and doughnuts vie for space near kings, queens and castles. A pair of shakers with compasses that point north sit on shelves crammed with sets shaped like bananas and beer steins, feet and flamingoes, hotdogs and hillbillies, teapots and toilets.
Not everything in the museum is quirky. Some high-end shakers are fashioned from silver, pewter and ceramic painted in 14-karat gold. When a fellow collector spotted the Luddens’ most valuable set, a 3-inch-tall pair made of pink Depression-era glass, he told them about one just like it that sold at a Sotheby’s auction for more than $3,000.
The largest, a 30-inch-tall wooden pillar set topped with pineapple finials, towers over the tiniest, a silver, bullet-size pair that holds a few grains of salt and pepper.
Daughter Andrea prefers the plastic sets with moving parts, such as a lawnmower with movable pistons, and a kitchen mixer with revolving blades and bowl. “They’re very Jetson-y,” she says.
The museum also showcases 1,500 pepper mills, Rolf’s favorites. “I like the machinery,” he says of the mechanisms that grind peppercorns.
Despite their enormous collection, the Luddens continue to search for shakers at antique shops and malls. “Even after so many years, we still run into some that we’ve never seen before,” daughter Andrea says. “It’s mind-boggling.”
In keeping with their European roots, the Luddens last year opened a second museum in Guadalest, Spain. “Spain is the Florida of Europe,” daughter Andrea says. “It’s a lot like Gatlinburg. It has 200 inhabitants, but there are eight museums, including ours.”
So what fancy shakers adorn the Luddens’ kitchen table? “At home,” Rolf says, laughing heartily, “we have plastic ones.”