Have you ever decorated a Baltimore Saltbox? If the answer is Yes, then you’re a Baltimore Saltbox Artist! Here at Baltimore Saltbox, we’re interested in documenting saltbox art and the artists who make it. To that end, we have a few questions about who you are and what inspires to you make your art.
Here’s the plan: We’ll create an art box page on the Baltimore Saltbox website for each box for which an artist fills out the survey. Links to the art box description pages will appear on saltbox artist bio pages and the Saltbox Art Google map.
We’re also figuring out QR codes that can be put on the boxes that will allow visitors to access the art box description website when they’re visiting your box. Fancy, right?
PLEASE NOTE: These forms are completely voluntary and not official in any way. Saltbox art is DIY and open to all. Baltimore Saltbox is not affiliated with Baltimore City, MDOT, or any other official entity. We’re only here to document and foster community out of love for the box. We’d love to get your story and share it, but also understand and respect that everyone might not be comfortable with, or interested in, having their information out there.
The short answer is easy. His name is Pete, and he and the team he leads at the Baltimore Department of Transportation (DOT) Maintenance facility on the 6100 block of E. Lombard St. in Bayview turn lumber into saltboxes like a well-oiled machine. When asked how many saltboxes he’s made during his close-to-thirty years with the DOT, he laughs. The number is in the thousands.
The saltbox is deceptively complex in its construction: 19 individual pieces of wood of 12 different sizes and 3 different board types held together with nails, screws, and hinges. Pete knows the measurements of each piece by heart, and for good reason: the current iteration of the saltbox is based on his tweak of the original design. Before Pete came along, the size of a Baltimore saltbox was 26 inches wide. The standard piece of plywood is 96 inches long by 48 inches wide. Pete was seeing a lot of scrap pieces pile up due to the 26-inch design and figured out that an adjustment of two inches would maximize the amount of wood used per sheet of ¾” plywood. Less scrap and less plywood used overall for the loss of two inches of saltbox seemed like a good tradeoff. Many years and many saltboxes later, this translates to thousands of dollars in savings for the city. Thanks, Pete!
The braces are mostly 2 ½” by 1 ½” boards pulled from a collection of scrap pieces from other projects. Saltbox feet are 1 ½” by 3 ½” boards, which is the same size as wooden barricades for street closures, so you’ll sometimes see reflective tape peeking out from under a box.
Pete and his crew often make hundreds of boxes per year. It’s a two-step approach:
Measure and cut all of the tops, sides (these are tricky because of the angle, but Pete has a template for this), bottoms, braces, and lids for a run of saltboxes to create an inventory of the parts you need.
Build the boxes out assembly-line style.
The size of the crew working on a saltbox build-out depends on what other work is in the queue. As the saying goes, many hands make fast work. Given the number of parts to assemble, Pete estimates that one person could build about five boxes in a single day, two or more people can knock out many more.
The DOT Maintenance facility is a very well-stocked workshop with one major exception: no nail gun, at least not anymore. The nails, which come in strips or rolls like bandoliers, were too expensive, Pete explains, so we do it by hand. With each saltbox using at least 40 nails, Pete and his team get quite the workout, but at least there are power drills to help out with the screws.
Another cost-savings measure comes with the choice of wood: saltboxes are made from non-treated wood versus treated wood. The price of building materials ebbs and flows with the tides of the free market, but treated limber is always more expensive, and for a good, obvious reason, it holds up significantly better to the elements. So why not use treated lumber instead? Would using a better, more resilient material be more cost-effective in the long run? The thick coat of OSHA yellow surely adds a level of protection, but the real rot is coming from the inside.
In theory, this idea makes some sense, but there are some other factors to consider. Would the hypothetical extra longevity of a saltbox made with treated wood be enough to offset the additional cost? Salt is ridiculously corrosive. Even the salt and sand mix like that used by Baltimore DOT is going to do a number on normal treated lumber. An even more expensive variation of treated lumber is made for marine use to combat heavy exposure to salt.
What about a different material altogether? Other counties provide the grit boxes or sand boxes – I’ve seen them in Canada, Norway, and the UK – made of plastic. According to a member of Pete’s crew, Baltimore tried out plastic saltboxes at some point. This kind of box is available at your local home improvement store and runs a little over $200 apiece. Apparently, the issue with the plastic salt bins was theft. That some nice, handy plastic bins sitting on a street corner should take a walk shouldn’t be completely surprising.
Providing infrastructure and effort to more closely manage the saltboxes is something that DOT is exploring. A public-facing saltbox map using GIS software that DOT already uses for construction projects is in the works. As a public service, online grit bin maps are commonly available via UK city council websites. What would it take to do this in Baltimore?
Currently, Baltimore saltboxes contain no unique identifier numbers that would allow for traceability and tracking of location, lifecycle, and usage. There’s no publicly accessible map to know where the saltboxes are, although there seem to be tracking spreadsheets with the DOT. When asked how many saltboxes are out there, the numbers the DOT provides vary from 900 to 1600. The truth is that nobody really knows.
As assets owned by Baltimore City, the saltboxes seem to be treated as disposable. Pete and the team can keep making them for a reasonably low cost, they last maybe a few years, then new ones take their place. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Pete and his crew build the saltboxes, but they don’t paint them. The naked saltboxes get their yellow OSHA and stenciled letters back at the Pulaski Highway facility. Why the lettering style of those stencils seems to have changed over the years is a mystery for a different time.
Starting around April 15th of each year – Tax Day – the iconic yellow Baltimore saltboxes slowly start disappearing from street corners and sidewalks, leaving only a patch of dead grass or discolored square on the concrete. Mind you, not all of them leave us, but chances are, you’ll start noticing a little less OSHA yellow in your life as winter gives way to spring. That is unless you happen to find yourself on the 6400 block of Pulaski Highway at the Baltimore Department of Transportation Maintenance Division – the summer home of the Baltimore Saltbox.
The process goes like this: Maintenance crew supervisors oversee one or several of the four DOT districts. When saltboxes need to be removed, the supervisor provides a crew with a list of box addresses by intersection or cross-street in a district to be removed. This may be part of the seasonal cycle of pulling the boxes or it may be due to a buildup of requests through 311 or complaints to a city councilperson. Saltboxes suffer any number of abuses and misuses – car accidents, vandalism, and above all else, being used as a trashcan or storage. Time and the elements also take their toll.
2020 was particularly bad for the saltboxes as COVID-19 restrictions and staffing shortages.The same workers that mow the parks and do landscaping pick up the boxes, so the saltboxes stayed baking in the sun while the skeleton crews did their best to keep Baltimore public spaces looking good. The mixture of salt and sand solidified in many boxes, leaving small boulders lodged inside that need to be removed.
Finding the saltboxes on a list for pickup isn’t always easy. Like any other piece of moveable public property, the boxes disappear or migrate to other locations. One supervisor told me about a woman who claimed one as her own, chaining it to her fence and installing a padlock. Once a saltbox is found, it’s emptied. Trash removed and bagged up. Leftover salt is dumped out and shoveled into the truck to make the box lift lighter, if possible. It’s a two-person job, the classic lift-with-your-legs activity.
The collected boxes are returned to 6400 Pulaski Highway and fall into three categories that roughly translate to:
Total loss: this is no longer a functioning box and will be crossing the Rainbow Bridge
Needs repair: this box has good bones, but need some maintenance team attention
Ready for storage: this box lives to serve another season and can go into storage
Saltbox storage is a little like the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, if the government warehouse space was divided among a mid-sized, rectangle building and several shipping containers and trailers. Maximizing use to the space is key here, and since nobody needs to access a particular box, they’re all placed on their sides and stacked in rows to the ceiling, feet facing out. The math works like this in the storage building: Length: 15 boxes. Height: 4 boxes, Width: 10 boxes. Equals: 600 saltboxes in the main storage building and rest in shipping containers, which includes the retrieved boxes, newly built boxes to replace the ones lost throughout the year.
Around November 15th, the boxes end their slumber and return to the streets of Baltimore to serve another year.
Plywood, black spray paint, Mod Podge (for sealant)
This box is a play-off of the phrase “The cake is a lie” that repeatedly appears as graffiti in the popular video game Portal. In the game, the protagonist Chell is repeatedly (and falsely) promised a reward of cake by GLaDOS, the evil A.I. controlling the Apreture Science Laboratories facility where the game takes place.
“The salt is a lie” is also a joking reference to the fact that saltboxes are often empty when needed.
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.
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.
First of all, thank you to everyone who participated in this amazing DIY art project. As of April 3, 2021, there are 198 art boxes throughout Baltimore City created by 65 different artists.
We have been in discussions with Baltimore City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) about what comes next. More details below but you will have two options:
“Adopt” your box. That is, keep your art in place and take responsibility for maintaining the box.
Remove your art before mid-April (reverting the art box to a regular saltbox status). The city will begin picking up regular, non-art, saltboxes around April 15th.
First, a bit of background on the city’s normal approach to managing the saltboxes.
Around November 15th, DOT begins placing saltboxes at key intersections and hilly streets identified as needing to have salt available. DOT then starts picking up the saltboxes around April 15th to repair them and build new boxes in preparation for the next winter season.
Our little art project has changed the process, and we give full props to DOT Director Steve Sharkey for recognizing that they had something special happening and letting it flourish.
So this is what is going to happen according to DOT:
Adopt Your Box: Art Boxes Are Staying Put (If You Choose)
In mid-April, DOT will be picking up all non-art boxes as per the normal process. These will be taken, stored, repaired, and prepped for duty in the fall.
Art boxes will remain. This is where you come in. DOT would like the artists to “adopt” the boxes they’ve decorated since they won’t be getting the normal repairs. What this means is a little hazy but will include removing trash from your box, making sure your art improves the box’s appearance and doing your best to keep the box intact.
If your box requires a level of repair that you can’t do yourself, call 311 to report that a repair is needed. The box and its art will be taken by DOT, repaired, and returned, with your art in place. As this is a city service, this should be used as a final resort. Unless the wood itself has rotted away or pieces have gone missing, do your best to keep the structure intact.
Remove Your Art: Revert an Art Box to a Plain Old Saltbox
If you do not want to adopt your box, you can always simply deinstall your box and return it to its normal state. This would allow DOT to take the saltbox back to be repaired and relieve you of the duty of maintaining a box. With boxes returning in the fall, you can always relive the magic of decorating a saltbox again.
Art Box (and Normal Saltbox) Mapping Taken Over By DOT
Currently, we’ve been keeping a Google Map of each of the known art box locations with cross streets, date, title, artist, neighborhood, reporter, and photo. It also maps normal box locations throughout the past few years. DOT does not have a map of saltboxes but tracks their locations with a spreadsheet.
Going forward, DOT will be using its GIS software to map the locations of BOTH art boxes and regular saltboxes. This will be a great public service and available to everyone like other city service maps. Examples can be found here.
This software is very robust and will allow for map features and details that Google Maps cannot support. We will be working with DOT and their GIS team on what information should be captured for the art boxes to ensure the work is properly documented and attributed, and any additional contextual information to help with the understanding of cultural significance. The GIS software will open up great possibilities like easily making walking tour maps and including QR codes on boxes, to name a few things we’re thinking about.
Once the data points for the map entries are defined, we will probably be reaching out to individual artists for help in filling in details.