The Saltbox Has Its Moment

Saltbox on E. Fort Ave. & Webster St., Riverside
Saltbox on E. Fort Ave. & Webster St., Riverside

I grew up where snow came in two categories: real and lake effect. Don’t ask me to tell you the difference because I can’t. Maybe the flakes produced by the moisture coming off Lake Michigan are different than in your garden variety Alberta Clipper, but snow is snow, and we had a lot of it in southwest lower Michigan. Snow management is a way of life, a survival skill, and a point of pride in a place where the micro-climate may drop six inches on your house at any given moment for five months of the year.

I moved to Baltimore from the Midwest a dozen years ago with strong ideas about snow and what to do with it. Don’t get me started on dibs for shoveled out street parking spots or folks who leave piles of snow on their cars that fly off on the poor unfortunates stuck driving behind them. They’re closing schools because of how much snow? Really?

Which brings us to the Baltimore Saltbox.

For years, I don’t remember paying them any particular attention. We had one – I don’t even remember the style – directly across from our rowhouse in Hampden for years. Then, one day, I noticed it was gone, leaving only a square patch of dead grass. The saltbox never came back. Did we not use it enough? We have a parking pad in the back and bought pet-safe ice melt to protect our dog’s paws, so maybe someone needed our box elsewhere. Who figured that out?

Questions percolated. Why did some boxes stay all year while other ones were taken away? Why all of the different font styles? Shouldn’t they come with a little shovel instead of the improvised Royal Farms plastic cups people seem to use? Who designed these things, and when were they first used in Baltimore? Are they for use on the road or the sidewalk, or both?

A switch had gotten flipped, and I started noticing – really noticing – the saltboxes. Each is different depending on placement and exposure to weather. Each represents a battle between a corrosive (salt) and materials (wood, paint, and nails) that corrode. That tension gives each saltbox its terroir. I was smitten.

In 2017, I started taking pictures of saltboxes during dog walks around Hampden and posting them on my personal Instagram. I’m as good a photographer as an iPhone makes me. The OHSA yellow and its fading variations do what they’re supposed to and stand out, making for interesting contrasts.

In 2018, I rolled the saltboxes into their own Instagram account – @baltimore.saltbox – and at the urging of a few friends (Bob Wagner and Teresa Duggan), I started dropping the boxes into a Google map Bob had set up.  Bob pulled together a saltbox walking tour map of Hampden, and we spent a lovely afternoon testing it out. IG followers reached out with stories, lore, and the same questions I had. To me, like the Utz girl and Natty Boh Gent, the yellow boxes with black block letters are iconic Baltimore symbols and deserved to have their story told and the lore collected. I visited the Pratt and exchanged emails with representatives of the city, who seemed confused by my interest.

Enter Juliet Ames. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because in January 2021, Juliet Ames took a break from creating amazing jewelry from broken plates to cut the letters SALT BOX out of china, mound them on a board, and affix it all to a saltbox at the corner of W. 36th St. and Roland Ave. Baltimore social media fell madly in love, and more importantly, Baltimore DOT chimed in with its blessing. I opened up my Google saltbox map to the public and deputized a few dozen people to do updates, adding normal and art boxes.

Saltbox Art piece #1 by Juliet Ames, corner of W. 36th St. & Roland Ave., Hampden

The media attention around the saltboxes opened a solid line of communication with DOT, who had their plates more than full with COVID-19 restrictions and the everyday stresses and issues of a typical government agency. They hadn’t asked for the extra attention, discussions, and meetings around, of all things, the saltboxes – a sub-set of a sub-set of DOT’s remit – and the DIY art that the citizenry suddenly decided to attach to them. My interpretation of DOT’s policy on handling the art boxes, which all accounts took multiple meetings to hash out, is documented here. The implementation of this policy is a topic for another time.

Saltbox art themes include visual puns (the “Shoe Box” replaces the word with a shoe drawing) and mashups with iconic local brands (the “Old Bay Box” looks like a can of the spice that locals put on everything from popcorn to crabs). The “Salt Waters” and “Divine” boxes feature the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters, and his muse Divine, respectively. Saltbox art also memorizes local historical figures like jazz greats Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway, and writer Edgar Allen Poe. 

Over 200 pieces of incredible saltbox art produced by 65+ artists later, I still had the same basic saltbox questions. Luckily, I had an in with DOT now, and they let a few of us see where the boxes go in the summer and who makes them. More on this to follow.